Hunger in the Highlands

hunger in highlands
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Third in a series

One of the most significant recent achievements to address food insecurity in the Hudson Valley is something that, on its surface, has nothing to do with food.

Last month, Poughkeepsie became the fourth New York municipality to pass a “good-cause eviction” law, which limits the amount that landlords can increase rent and stipulates that they must have a good cause for evicting tenants. Beacon is weighing whether to pass similar legislation.

What does that have to do with hunger? Everything, says Sarah Salem, who was elected on Nov. 2 to a third term on the Poughkeepsie Common Council and works for Dutchess Outreach, an organization that has been fighting food insecurity for nearly 50 years.

“This was something that our constituents told us they needed,” Salem said the day after the legislation was passed. “And we were able to give it to them. Those constituents are our clients at Dutchess Outreach. They said last night how great our food pantry was, and how it helps them achieve a sense of financial stability, but they need to be protected in their homes.”

It is hard to discuss food insecurity without examining what’s driving people to food banks and soup kitchens in the first place.

The reasons are vast: Growing economic inequality, stagnant wages, gentrification, rising health care and housing costs are the most obvious. Maggie Dickinson, who lives in Beacon and is the author of Feeding the Crisis: Care and Abandonment in America’s Food Safety Net, argues that welfare, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) and other government programs have been modified to be less about ending hunger and more about subsidizing low-wage workers.

Dickinson

“During welfare reform in the 1990s, there was this line that everybody used which was ‘A job was your path out of poverty,’ ” she says. “The policy goal was to get women off welfare and into a job so that they would no longer be poor. What happened was that millions of women got pushed off the welfare rolls and they were still poor.

“Food stamps were seen as one of these ways to subsidize low wages without actually doing anything to challenge employers’ bottom lines,” she says. “Walmart could still pay you next to nothing, but you could get food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit to make ends meet. Wages have stagnated so much over the past 40 years. If the minimum wage was the same as it was in 1968, and inflation-adjusted, it would be around $24 an hour. We’re still trying to get $15 an hour passed.”

There’s space for food-insecurity programs to get involved in addressing long-term economic problems, such as Dutchess Outreach advocating good-cause eviction laws or, in Texas, the San Antonio Food Bank building an affordable, transitional housing unit with child care next to one of its distribution centers.

But for the immediate problem — making sure no one goes to bed hungry — the COVID-19 pandemic is providing the funding and momentum to change how the issue is addressed.

One of the allowable uses for funds from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act passed by Congress earlier this year is addressing food insecurity. And nonprofits are questioning the necessity of barriers that in the past have prevented people from getting help, such as paperwork and income verification.

Over the past 18 months, volunteers and private funding have stepped up in the Highlands in such ventures as the formation of Beacon Mutual Aid and the $600,000 that the Town of Philipstown raised to buy grocery gift cards and fund emergency feeding programs.

With that in mind, in October the Philipstown Town Board considered what level of food insecurity would be acceptable.

“In a town like Philipstown, with our resources, we should have a goal of zero percent food insecurity,” says Jason Angell, a Garrison farmer who joined the board this year. “That’s doable.”

Mapping inequality

It takes more than a bag of groceries or a box of produce to address food insecurity. It also takes data. If you’re setting a goal of zero hunger, you have to first figure out how many people are hungry.

Much of Angell’s work with Long Haul Farm, which he owns with his wife, Jocelyn Apicello, has involved addressing food insecurity in what are traditionally thought of as the areas that suffer from it: Poor, urban neighborhoods in Newburgh, Peekskill and Poughkeepsie.

jason angell

Jason Angell, a farmer who serves on the Philipstown Town Board, says zero hunger locally is “doable.” (Photo provided)

But when the number of families that the Philipstown Food Pantry was serving tripled in the pandemic’s early months, he says his field of vision expanded. “Did that reveal a spike in food insecurity due to COVID-19, or did it show chronic food insecurity in some way that had not been revealed?” he asked.

Those questions led him to the newly formed Putnam County Food Systems Coalition, who was crunching numbers and interviewing residents in a search for answers. The coalition — whose members include the county Department of Health, Second Chance Foods, the Glynwood Center for Regional Food and Farming and Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) of Putnam County — recently published a food systems map based on its research (see bit.ly/putnam-map).

As Jen Lerner of CCE Putnam explained, 5 percent of residents in Putnam County live at or below the poverty line, compared to 13 percent nationwide. “That would say to you, ‘Oh, it’s not a problem here,’ ” she says. “But then you start looking at the comparison of the cost of living.”

According to the data, Putnam has the highest cost of living of any county in the state and the second-highest average cost per meal, behind Manhattan.

That leads to another stat known as ALICE. Developed by the United Way, it’s an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. These are the working poor, who make too much to qualify for food stamps or other government assistance but have trouble making basic ends meet. Nearly 30 percent of Putnam households meet that criteria, or about 1,000 households in Philipstown.

“They’re making decisions between paying bills and buying food,” Lerner says.

Access map

This food access map, created by the Putnam County Food Systems Coalition, shows the challenge that lack of transportation can create when obtaining food. The blue dots represent stores that accept food stamps; the orange dots are pantries and other emergency providers. The green and dotted blue lines are county bus or trolley routes.

But are they food insecure? Angell says it’s best to think of ALICE households as intermittently food insecure as opposed to chronically hungry, because they may be able to afford enough groceries one month but not the next.

Working off the calculation that a third of ALICE households are food insecure at any given time — “That’s just an assumption because our data has limits,” allows Angell — and that 120 households in Philipstown are at or below the poverty line, leads to the rough estimate of 450 food-insecure households.

Based on the number of households being served by the Philipstown Food Pantry and the county senior center, about 25 percent of the food-insecure households in Philipstown are being fed. So what would it take to feed the other 75 percent?

Lerner says that while insufficient income is the leading cause of food insecurity in Putnam, lack of transportation is the second.

“Having reliable transportation is a great cost, between insurance, upkeep, car payments,” she says. “So people are dependent on public transportation, but there’s a lot of anxiety.”

If it takes an hour to get back home from the grocery store by bus, people will think twice about buying fresh produce, dairy or anything else that needs to be refrigerated for fear that it will spoil on the journey.

Another piece of the puzzle is that farmers in Putnam have the capacity to donate more food to Philipstown than they already do, but there’s nowhere to store it. Vendors at the Cold Spring Farmers Market have expressed an eagerness to give food leftover at the end of the Saturday market to the Philipstown Food Pantry, but the pantry is closed for the week by the time the market closes, and doesn’t have enough refrigeration to accept it anyway.

The answer appears to be a refrigerated truck or van that can pick up produce, dairy and meat donations, store them safely and deliver them to families with transportation problems. The necessity of Second Chance Foods, which transforms excess produce into freezable meals, becomes clearer when considering the food map.

“Much as I like to think, as a farmer, that just giving people bunches of kale and collard greens is going to solve their issues, a lot of people need food that they can consume right away,” says Angell. “They may be homebound elders who can’t turn a bunch of kohlrabi into an immediately nutritious meal. So we source the surplus food, have a place to store it until it can either be distributed or turned into easily consumable foods like Second Chance Foods does, and then bring it to places that we’ve identified as having food insecurity needs.”

As a model, Angell points to the Westchester Food Bank’s mobile food pantry, which lays its wares out like a farmers market but gives away the food to anyone who comes by. “They don’t ask for income data,” says Angell. “They’re trying to not stigmatize the fact that people need food, especially when there’s a growing number of people in economic crisis.”

“What it keeps coming down to is: storage and distribution,” says Lerner. “You talk to everybody who works in food insecurity and the question is: How can we store it in a way that we can distribute when it’s needed, when it all comes in at once?”

Angell and Lerner are working on a proposal to present to the Philipstown Town Board on how to use some of $700,000 it expects to receive through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to address local hunger.

Part of the proposal will probably involve a mobile refrigerated unit, as well as more refrigerated sites to handle excess produce donations and allow food pantries to have more stock on hand. But part will include human infrastructure: someone to oversee it all.

Most food insecurity groups start out as volunteer networks and quickly run out of capacity because no one has time to expand the organization. Second Chance Foods hired an executive director a few years ago, and Fareground in Beacon recently did the same after operating on volunteer power for six years.

Angell hopes that a part-time coordinator, paid in part or entirely with ARPA money, could oversee senior care and food insecurity while also identifying other sources of funding for the position, as happened with the nonprofit Philipstown Behavioral Health Hub, which provides mental health services. As he sees it, nonprofits, religious groups and local governments have to team up to tackle hunger, or no one else will.

“Who has the incentive to take the food from that waste stream and refrigerate it and turn it into usable food items that can be consumed easily by the general American public and distribute it?” he asks. “I don’t see how the capitalist market moves into that space and finds a way to profit by giving food away.”

Dutchess Outreach

A lot has changed in the 47 years that Dutchess Outreach, based in Poughkeepsie, has been fighting hunger. Initially, as with most food pantries, it handed out food based on a model provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture: bags with protein such as beans, a dairy item, a fat, canned vegetables and canned fruits.

“That’s not according to dietary guidelines, and it wasn’t according to cultural preferences,” says Sarah Salem. The stereotypical view of “beggars can’t be choosers” sometimes persists when it comes to routing donations to food banks, resulting in donations that don’t take into account the health of the person receiving the food, or even what they will eat.

Dickinson, the author of Feeding the Crisis, spent the early months of the pandemic assisting a group that was handing out donated food in Manhattan’s Chinatown. One of the donated foods the volunteers kept receiving was cheese.

The members of the largely immigrant population who needed food told the volunteers that “this is not something we ever consume.” Says Dickinson: “Honestly, they’re kind of grossed out by it. It’s really culturally inappropriate.”

For Salem, the proof that the old model wasn’t working was in the streets. After handing out food, volunteers would find discarded cans on the ground outside. “We were contributing to waste,” Salem says. “We’ve switched to the ‘choice’ model.”

dutchess outreach

Dutchess Outreach board members serve lunch. (Photo by Sean Hemmerle)

Today, clients at Dutchess Outreach grab a shopping cart and take what they want from food that has been laid out. Salem says that since the model was adopted, the organization is giving away less food because people are only taking what they know they’re going to eat. The model is also in use at the Philipstown Food Pantry — volunteer Amy Richter refers to it as “shopping.”

As in Cold Spring and elsewhere, Dutchess Outreach asks for little information from clients, who expressed fear of visiting after the Trump Administration in 2019 revealed a proposal to deny green cards and citizenship to immigrants who legally availed themselves of public services such as food stamps.

“We do need to collect some data for grants and reporting purposes, but we don’t need that much, and we definitely don’t need to stop someone and get an entire analysis of their financial history or their background,” Salem says. “We want to make it as easy and shameless as possible.”

Sarah Salem

Sarah Salem of Dutchess Outreach (Photo by Sean Hemmerle)

Salem also helped found the Hudson Valley Food Systems Coalition, a working group of farmers, food producers, legislators, health officials and culinary professionals hoping to figure out how to address local hunger.

Dickinson says that’s a good instinct, citing Nourish New York, a recently passed law in which the state pays farmers and food producers to supply food to food pantries and other emergency food providers.

That type of program “strengthens the connection between people who need food, and people who are growing food but are doing it with a lot of risk and a lot of economic challenge,” she explains. “Rebuilding food systems may not seem like an obvious solution, but it’s an important piece.”

Not every service that Dutchess Outreach offers is free. It also runs a farmers market where the produce and other items are about half the typical cost.

“It gives people the opportunity to test at the level they’re able to purchase food and build a more sustainable food system for themselves but also — and this is key — feel like they’re participating in the local food movement,” says Salem. “They feel like they have a seat at the table.”

Read more from this series

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

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