Hunger in the Highlands

hunger in highlands

It’s 8:15 a.m. on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, 15 minutes before the Philipstown Food Pantry at the First Presbyterian Church in Cold Spring opens, and the line at the front door is already more than a dozen people long, their breath sending up tiny clouds in the November chill.

During the week, the large room on the other side of the door serves as a nursery school. But every Friday at noon, volunteers begin to transform the space into what resembles an indoor market — only one in which no money will be exchanged.

Tables are set up, and non-perishable goods such as canned food and boxes of cereal are stacked. The next morning, refrigerated goods are pulled out of cold storage: milk, butter, eggs, but also, because it’s Thanksgiving week, frozen turkeys and chickens. One table is laden with pies, courtesy of the Girl Scouts. Bread from Trader Joe’s that’s too close to its expiration date to sell is spread out on another table. And by the door is an assortment of fruits and vegetables that came from the Glynwood Center for Regional Food and Farming.

Food pantry

Volunteers set up at the Philipstown Food Pantry before opening (Photo by B. Cronin)

The early morning sunlight pours in from the expansive windows, casting a glow on the food that is minutes away from being distributed, giving the scene the air of a sacred ritual. Which, in a sense, it is.

“I do this because it’s my Christian mission,” says Amy Richter, a retired music teacher who has been volunteering here for four years. “Even though this isn’t my church.” There’s a more secular reason as well for why she comes here every week. “I hate to see people go hungry,” she says.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees federal food programs, has reported that more than 38 million Americans — 12 million of whom are children — are “food insecure,” a term that refers to a lack of consistent access to food.

Another term that comes up when speaking with people who address hunger is ALICE, an acronym that the United Way has popularized that stands for “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.” About 1 in 3 residents of the Hudson Highlands falls into this category. These are working Americans living paycheck-to-paycheck, one hardship or disaster away from no longer being able to cover basic necessities such as food, perhaps just in the short-term, perhaps longer. Then came the worldwide disaster of COVID-19, and millions of Americans found themselves in line for free groceries or a meal at a soup kitchen.

How Much Do You Spend?

The United Way calculated in 2020 that a family of four, including two children in school, must earn $89,784 in Putnam County and $71,760 in Dutchess to survive with a bare minimum budget. Below is the monthly food portion of that budget.

survival budget

At 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, the doors open at the Philipstown Food Pantry and three clients at a time are let in. They bring wheeled carts and reusable bags. Volunteers stand by to assist them with carrying their groceries. Another volunteer by the door asks if they would like a ham or turkey for Christmas, so the pantry can prepare. The people who come in are young and old, families with children, the disabled, the working poor.

The mood is anything but somber. Volunteers and clients greet each other, sometimes with hugs. They trade recipes, discuss the holidays, make plans for caroling together on Christmas Eve. One volunteer, standing behind the Glynwood table, explains what to do with some of the more unfamiliar ingredients.

“This is a carnival squash,” she says, holding up a striped and spotted gourd. “You cook it just like you would an acorn squash.” The clients need little convincing; every one of them loads up on the fruits and vegetables. As the stacks of non-perishable goods start to dwindle, volunteers rush to restock them with more food, so that every client who comes in is greeted with abundance.

An hour later, the clients are gone. More than 50 families have been fed, including homebound clients who received deliveries courtesy of the Lions Club. That’s about twice as many people as the pantry was feeding before the pandemic began but down from its peak during the first few months in 2020 when more than 70 families were utilizing the service.

“We’ve just been pedaling, pedaling, pedaling, trying to keep up,” says Carolyn Rapalje, another regular volunteer. “So far we’ve been OK.”

She notes that in the past, donations and volunteers peaked around the holidays and tapered off the other 11 months. Since COVID-19, donations of time and money have been ample and consistent throughout the year. For now, the increase in demand has been met by an increase in aid, in everything from the federal level to funds raised by the Town of Philipstown to home gardeners dropping off their backyard bounty.

Sorting groceries

Sorting groceries at Second Chance Foods in Putnam County: Peak-condition items such as eggs, milk, steak and salmon are passed on whole, while items near their sell-by dates are made into meals. (Photo by Martha Elder/SCF)

When I ask Richter and Rapalje what it would take to solve the problem of food insecurity on a larger scale, they look at each other and laugh. It’s clear they’ve discussed this themselves many times.

Richter’s belief is that programs like the Philipstown Food Pantry exist because of holes in the social safety net. Volunteers and nonprofits are stepping up to do work that, in her opinion, the government should be doing. She’s seen the institutional failings that push people into food insecurity and the arms of the food pantry: Lack of health care, especially mental health care. Lack of paid maternity leave and child care.

“A minimum basic income, like they tried in Finland,” would help, she said, referring to a recently completed two-year pilot program in which that country randomly selected 2,000 unemployed individuals and gave them a monthly payment of about $630 for the length of the program, payments that continued even after they found work.

Other European countries are now considering their own pilot programs and even Pope Francis suggested last year during his Easter address that “this may be the time to consider a universal basic wage.”

Rapalje’s solution is simpler. “For those who have to give to those who don’t,” she says. “It’s the only way I can think of.”

In September, the USDA reported that the overall rate of food insecurity in 2020 remained the same as it was in 2019 because many Americans who needed emergency meal services in the wake of the pandemic were able to get help. That increased aid has not been equitable, however: Among single parents and Black Americans, food insecurity increased last year. (Locally, numbers on food insecurity are harder to quantify, outside of measures such as food pantry or soup kitchen activity, or the percentage of people estimated to be living on bare-minimum budgets.)

How many chartPart of the reason that the overall rate didn’t grow more is that local groups stepped up their efforts and new initiatives formed in a flash. The lockdown of March 2020 was barely 24 hours old when Beacon Mutual Aid was created, and the group was soon handing out massive food donations in conjunction with the Beacon school district, Common Ground Farm in Wappingers Falls and Fareground in Beacon. In Philipstown, Supervisor Richard Shea was able to quickly raise $170,000 from two anonymous donors to fund emergency food efforts.

Those gifts “opened the spigots,” he recalls, allowing the town to raise more than $600,000. Some of those funds went to support groups such as Second Chance Foods in Putnam County and the food insecurity initiatives of Lodger in Newburgh.

Another reason is that some of the many barriers that usually prevent or complicate those seeking aid from getting help were no longer an issue. There were no piles of paperwork, offices to navigate or a system that, as Karen George from Fareground says, “makes people feel ashamed.” Instead, those who said they needed help were simply given food and money, instead of being made to prove they needed it.

“We wanted to make sure that there were no barriers and no source of potential for humiliation,” said Shea. “This was about: If you’re telling us you need help, then obviously you do need help and we’re going to make sure you get it. And the best way to do that was to get gift cards so people can get what they want.”

The majority of the money the town raised was used to purchase gift cards to Foodtown in Cold Spring and Key Food in Beacon in $100 denominations that were given out week-to-week. The grocery stores also donated cards.

“We had some people say, ‘Well, you shouldn’t be giving those out, people are going to just buy beer and cigarettes,’ ” Shea said. “And I said, ‘Look, I’m going to trust people. You have to give people the benefit of the doubt.’ I believe if you give people the opportunities, they’ll take it and they’ll lift themselves up. But you can’t beat people down and put them at a disadvantage and then say: ‘Why can’t you do something about it yourself?’ ”

In the last 21 months, the Town of Philipstown has received hundreds of thank-you letters, cards and posters from gift-card recipients. Shea, who has been the supervisor for 14 years but did not run for reelection, called the work that the town is doing to address food insecurity during the pandemic the most gratifying he’s done. “It’s been an eye-opener,” he said.

Maggie Dickinson, a Beacon resident who is a professor at the City University of New York, says we may be living in a rare period of U.S. history in which we can make long overdue expansions to the social safety net.

Dickinson

“People are often more willing to agree that other people need help when they can see other people as blameless,” said Dickinson, the author of Feeding the Crisis: Care and Abandonment in America’s Food Safety Net. “It’s not their fault. There’s an understanding that the reason that people couldn’t go to work was because it was a pandemic.”

Her 2019 book came out of her work volunteering over the course of a year at a food bank and attempting to help its clients get federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, colloquially known as food stamps. Dickinson learned firsthand how complicated the process can be, and how, she said, the system seemed to work against Black and Hispanic people and single parents.

“Why do we make it so hard?” she asked. “Why have we been discouraging, for 40 or 50 years, people from getting the benefits they need? There’s lots of room for improvement [in the system], but it’s also a political question.”

By one estimate, around 40 percent of the food produced in America is wasted, thrown away or left to rot in the fields because it could not be harvested — all before it reaches a dinner table. Preventing just a fraction of that waste would be enough to feed every person in America who is food insecure, advocates say.

“It’s not a matter of can we do this or can’t we do this,” says Dickinson. “We just choose not to.”

Yet the emergency assistance that families have received during the pandemic, and the ease with which many were able to receive it, has the potential of changing the narrative. Dickinson pointed to the monthly Child Tax Credit payments that started showing up in most parents’ bank accounts over the summer with little fanfare or fuss but that, according to researchers at Columbia University, have already lifted millions of children out of poverty.

“For so long, people have said, ‘Nothing will ever change, the government can’t do anything,’” Dickinson said. “Now we’re like, ‘Huh, they can! Look at that!’ ”

boxes of sorted produce

Boxes of donated food are delivered by Second Chance to pantries each week. (Photo provided)

There have been other developments at the federal and state levels. In October, the U.S. government overhauled and recalculated the SNAP system, which led to many people’s benefits increasing by around 21 percent. Last week, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced that $230 million in SNAP benefits would automatically be added to many accounts in time for Thanksgiving. And in January, a state law will go into effect that will require any institution that produces more than 2 tons of food waste a week to donate the excess if the food is still edible or send it to organic recycling facilities to be turned into compost. (Methane produced by food rotting in landfills is a leading contributor to climate change.)

Advocates say the Highlands is in a unique position to address hunger because, while there is income inequality, it also has pockets of deep wealth and generosity. There’s an enviable excess of volunteers and a high concentration of people who have been working in the food insecurity space for decades who, as the pandemic showed, know how to respond in times of crisis. When that infrastructure is not in place, it’s evident: Kara Marie Dean-Assael of Beacon’s Fareground says the organization found itself working in Wappingers Falls when the pandemic struck simply because no one there happened to be addressing hunger on a private or institutional level.

The Highlands is also well-positioned to fight hunger because it has long been part of a region that produces a vast agricultural bounty — local farmers are able to quickly provide food without getting bogged down by supply chain issues. Last week, Hochul announced that Nourish New York, a program introduced during the pandemic to purchase food from local farms for emergency feeding programs, would be made permanent.

Over the next few weeks, The Current will be taking a closer look at the people and the programs who are combating food insecurity and the once-in-a-generation opportunities that may lie ahead.

Read more from this series

Part 1 || Part 2 || Part 3 || Part 4 || Resource Guide

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