By KATIE HOOS
Soup kitchens in Westchester County, which were stretched thin even before recent governmental funding cuts, are now seeing an increased number of visitors looking to make ends meet.
Roughly $5 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, coupled with the rising cost of food, has led to additional demand for area soup kitchens to serve even more meals as future cuts further threaten food stamp beneficiaries.
Grace Church Community Center, a White Plains-based organization that provides a variety of social services to the needy including emergency shelters, recovery programs, and food assistance, operates a weekday soup kitchen to assist the hungry. The free mid-morning meal typically feeds between 80 and 120 individuals each day and, according to Emily Gallagher, the center’s coordinator for volunteers and community relations, the majority of visitors are Hispanic male day laborers, low-income seniors and the long-term unemployed.
Today, the center continues to see a growing population of hungry people.
Gallagher estimates a large population of Grace Church soup kitchen visitors receive SNAP assistance and said the cuts not only limit the amount of food benefactors can purchase using their benefits, but the type of food as well, forcing recipients to buy less healthy options in an attempt to save money.
Organizations like soup kitchens and food pantries then have to step in to provide additional balanced meals to the community.
Anthony, last name withheld, is a Tarrytown resident who has frequented the Grace Church Community Center soup kitchen for three years. He said he liked the small roots feel of the organization and how the soup kitchen successfully provides a supplement to his weekly meals. Without the help of Grace Church, Anthony said he would have to go without a meal or two.
Milton Ramos, who visits the soup kitchen two to three times a month, said it’s the people who bring him back.
“They treat you like family here,” he said.
Kim Quickel, who is a resident of the Sister Anne Mary Regan Residence, a housing unit for women with chemical dependency in Port Chester, was previously in the shelter system at Grace Church Community Center. She still regularly eats meals at the soup kitchen. A recovering alcoholic, Quickel said she definitely appreciates the soup kitchen and what it has done for her recovery.
“When you’re not doing well, food is very important,” she said.
Quickel is currently six months sober and hopes to regain employment as a nurse once she completes her program.
As much good as organizations like Grace Church Community Center do for the hungry population in Westchester, decreases to SNAP benefits only further hinder their attempt to fight hunger.
According to a March 2013 study conducted by the Westchester Coalition for the Hungry and Homeless, out of the 961,670 people residing in Westchester County, approximately 36,520 households, or 84,000 people, rely on SNAP. When benefits were cut in November of last year, 11 percent of Westchester residents who were already struggling to put food on the table, felt their purse strings pulled even tighter.
Jeanne Blum is the executive director of the Westchester Coalition for the Hungry and Homeless, a non-profit organization committed to alleviating hunger and homelessness in the area. She said organizations like Grace Church Community Center feel the pinch when federal money runs out.
“There is a lot of pressure now put on non-profits and volunteer organizations who are trying to pick up the slack where federal programs fall short,” Blum said.
Blum also said people who have previously not needed assistance for meals, including single mothers, homeowners and families experiencing recent unemployment, are now visiting soup kitchens since their SNAP benefits aren’t cutting it anymore.
“It goes without saying that we’re just seeing the very beginning of higher attendance at soup kitchens and a higher need for food,” Blum said.
“People are hungry.”
In 2009, the federal government temporarily increased funding by nearly $20 billion for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The main goal of the $787 billion federal stimulus package was to create more jobs and provide temporary relief programs for those hit hardest by the recession, including investing in social welfare programs like SNAP. As a result of the stimulus, recipients receiving the maximum monthly allotted amount saw nearly a 14 percent increase in SNAP benefits.
On Nov. 1, 2013, the stimulus package expired, leaving millions of families and individuals who receive SNAP benefits with less financial support. One study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates there are 47 million people on food stamps throughout the country and nearly 3.2 million in New York alone. The November cuts decreased SNAP amounts by $11 a month for a single person and $36 a month for a family of four, leaving recipients with $189 a month and $632 a month respectively. The decrease will cause benefit levels to dip lower than they were before the recession.
The nationwide cuts equate to nearly $5 billion a year, representing almost 2 billion fewer meals a year throughout the U.S.
Not only are soup kitchens contending with cuts to SNAP, they also recently faced the annual rise in attendance associated with the holiday season.
The Grace Church center estimates 20 percent of their yearly meals are served on holidays.
Recently, on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day, 340 individuals received a hot meal and two to-go meals on-site at Grace Church. The center also delivered 492 hot meals to people throughout Westchester, totaling 1,512 holiday meals.
Since Thanksgiving and Chris-tmas fall at the end of the month, which is often when benefits run out, Paul Anderson-Winchell, executive director of Grace Church Community Center, said soup kitchens and food pantries are seeing more hungry people around the holidays.
“The holiday period is more tied to the economic and benefit cycle,” Anderson-Winchell said. “The cold weather adds to the increase in numbers, too.”
Bethesda Baptist Church of New Rochelle, which operates a weekly soup kitchen on Saturday mornings, has also seen an increase in visitors. Lad’s Lunch, the church’s soup kitchen, serves a hot meal to more than 100 visitors each week. Lad’s Lunch coordinator, Norma Stephenson, said Lad’s has seen an influx, especially during this year’s Thanksgiving meal. In previous years, the soup kitchen would give out Thanksgiving baskets to the hungry, but, due to high demand, they are now preparing and serving the meals.
“We had a tremendous turnout for our second year serving the meal,” Stephenson said.
However, Future SNAP cuts could cripple beneficiaries and soup kitchens even further, as Congress currently negotiates billions of dollars in cuts to the Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013, more commonly known as the Farm Bill.
The Farm Bill, whose deadline has been extended to Jan. 31, 2014, is a 5-year piece of legislation handling funding for most federal food and farm policies, including SNAP.
Gallagher said, with the new cuts, new populations of people will need meal assistance from Grace Church. She is expecting to see an influx of the working poor and lower middle class once the new farm bill is passed.
Anderson-Winchell from Grace Church agreed future cuts would bring the soup kitchen more business than they may be able to handle and encouraged those interested in donating to remember that the hungry need assistance year-round, not just around the holidays.
“Cutting the money from folks that can least afford it is just unconscionable,” he said. “It is outrageous that we can’t agree to feed people. This is not where you should be having the political battles.”
DIRECTORY OF WESTCHESTER
COUNTY SOUP KITCHENS
Bethany A.M.E. Church Soup Kitchen
21 Ludlow Street, Yonkers, NY, 10705
Bethesda Baptist Church Lad’s Lunch
71 Lincoln Avenue, New Rochelle, NY, 10801
Calvary Baptist Church Soup Kitchen
188 Orawaupum Street, White Plains, NY, 10602
Community Memorial Baptist Church Soup Kitchen
132 Waverly Street, Yonkers, NY, 10701
First Arabic Baptist Church Pantry/Kitchen
98 Waverly Street, Yonkers, NY, 10701
First Assembly of God Church/Love
in Action Soup Kitchen
165 Union Avenue, New Rochelle, NY, 10801
First Reformed Church Food Pantry/Kitchen
135 South 6th Avenue, Mount Vernon, NY, 10550
Grace Church Community Center
33 Church Street, White Plains, NY, 10601
Greyston Health Services
23 Park Avenue, Yonkers, NY, 10701
Loaves and Fish
Trinity Episcopal Church, Ossining, NY, 10562
Mount Hope Table of Grace
65 Lake Street, White Plains, NY, 10604
Pressley Memorial Church Food Pantry/ Kitchen
38 Warburton Avenue, Yonkers, NY, 10701
Salvation Army Port Chester
36 Bush Avenue, Port Chester, New York, 10573
Seventh Day Adventist Church Food Pantry
165 Riverdale Avenue, Yonkers, NY, 10701
St. Bartholomew’s Church Soup Kitchen
St. Bartholomew’s Church, White Plains, NY, 10606
St. Catherine’s A.M.E. Zion Church
Caring & Sharing Program
19 Lincoln Avenue, New Rochelle, NY, 10801
St. Frances A.M.E Zion Soup Kitchen
18 Smith Street, Port Chester, NY, 10573
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church Soup Kitchen
19 Smith Street, Port Chester, NY, 10573
Sunny Donut, CHOP, Inc.
200 North Water Street, Peekskill, NY 10566
The Lord’s Pantry
82 Prospect Street, White Plains, NY, 10605
The Salvation Army Food Pantry
22 Church Street, New Rochelle, NY, 10801
The Salvation Army
Food Pantry/ Kitchen
117 Nelson Avenue, Peekskill, NY, 10566
The Sharing Community
1 Hudson Street, Yonkers, NY, 10701
Telephone 914-963-2626 ext. 222
Trinity United Methodist Church Soup Kitchen
130 S. Lexington Avenue, White Plains, NY, 10606
Union Baptist Church Soup Kitchen
31 Manhattan Avenue, White Plains, NY, 10607
Yonkers Family YMCA
17 Riverdale Avenue, Yonkers, New York, 10701