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Cultivating a Summer of Food Security for Brooklyn

Dr. Jocelynne Rainey

The Campaign Against Hunger

Like many of you, I’m looking forward to this summer as a return to normal — life in Brooklyn is back in full force with cookouts, block parties, parades, and a bustling boardwalk. But behind that joy is a persistent truth that far too many of us are still coping with the impacts of the last three years, particularly when it comes to keeping food on the table.

According to a new City Harvest report, children are visiting food pantries nearly 70% more than in 2019. In Brooklyn alone, the number of child visits to pantries surpassed 4 million over the last year. And with rising inflation and the cost of living, New York City families need to make nearly 50% more than they did in 2019 to afford basic needs like food, housing, and childcare.

Trust me, you’re not the only one in disbelief, but there’s more to the story. At the beginning of the pandemic, the federal government implemented emergency measures that gave participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — widely known as SNAP — the maximum benefit regardless of income in an attempt to forestall rising levels of hunger and food insecurity. Just two months ago, however, the government announced that the monthly benefit for families was set to dramatically decrease, with some households receiving anywhere from $95 to over $250 a month less.

During last year’s Listening Tour across the borough, we consistently heard that food insecurity was a top concern even though it often feels invisible in neighborhoods that seem to offer every sort of food imaginable.

Even under the best of circumstances, summers are very difficult for many families. “With rising food costs and children out of school, we’re expecting an increase in families that need food,” says Dr. Melony Samuels, the founder and executive director of Brooklyn-based The Campaign Against Hunger (TCAH).

Over the past 20-plus years, TCAH evolved from a church basement pantry to now serving over 14,000 meals a week across central and eastern Brooklyn and the Rockaways. In 2019, TCAH received our Spark Prize–and the $100,000 award came at just the right time. In 2020 alone, TCAH served over 20 million healthy meals.

“Brooklyn Org’s support has helped us increase youth programs, address the needs of seniors, and support our operations,” recalls Dr. Samuels. “It only takes $0.56 for us to feed someone, which is why every dollar counts.”

As Dr. Samuels explains it, there are several challenges keeping families trapped in a persistent state of malnutrition. For starters, healthy food is scarce. She describes the situation as a “food apartheid.” Healthy food is just too expensive for most families. And not only are the more affordable food alternatives completely devoid of nutritional value, they also contribute to chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

During last year’s Listening Tour across the borough, we consistently heard that food insecurity was a top concern even though it often feels invisible in neighborhoods that seem to offer every sort of food imaginable.  “Gentrification brings high-priced grocery stores and markets and rising food costs,” reflects Dr. Samuels, “And people have fewer places to shop in their own neighborhoods. This is part of the reason we’ve expanded into community gardens – and why our work is so important.”.

Jairo Guzmán, the president of the Mexican Coalition, also points to the rising costs of food as one of the reasons so many families, especially new immigrants and essential workers, across Brooklyn are so malnourished. “Many people aren’t eating healthy food, and many more are severely malnourished,” explains Guzmán.

The Mexican Coalition, based in Sunset Park, helps more than 17,000 immigrant families each year, many of whom work grueling hours — often across several jobs — making it difficult to even find time to prepare a healthy meal or get enough calories.

“Parents are telling us that their kids are going to sleep hungry,” says Guzmán. “Because of their dreams of creating better lives for their children, parents are also eating less so their children can eat more. Even the elderly would rather go without so they can give to their adult children who are experiencing hardships.”

This Spring, through our partnership in the Welcome NYC initiative, we provided the Mexican Coalition with an additional $10,000 grant to help bolster their services for food distributions for new asylum seekers. “We are eternally grateful for Brooklyn Org’s ongoing support of our mission and Brooklyn’s immigrant community,” says Guzman. “What’s really been meaningful for us is that Brooklyn Org has been committed to understanding our various funding needs — and being flexible so that we can allocate resources to everything from food and immigrants’ rights to literacy and operations.”

Over the next few months, our city and borough will likely see a continued influx of newly arrived immigrants. Thousands of children will be out of school, without regular access to free meals. And many of the elderly across Brooklyn will continue to struggle making ends meet given their meager fixed incomes. I know this isn’t a pleasant way to think about summer, but we must commit to working toward a future where everyone in Brooklyn can thrive. Your neighbors need your support. This summer, spread love and give wherever you can — it’s the Brooklyn way!