Banking on a Change

WhyHunger reports from the Food Bank for New York City

 by Jessica Powers? , Director, National Hunger Clearinghouse

Approximately 500 people representing more than 1,000 food pantries and soup kitchens throughout the 5 boroughs attended the Food Bank for New York City’s 19th Annual Agency Conference last Tuesday. These “foot soldiers” (to use panelist Hugh Hamilton’s term), many of whom were church-going, elderly black women dressed in their Sunday finest, were there to learn strategies that other groups employ to serve their clients and to share challenges with a sympathetic audience. “I’ve been doing this for 28 years,” Rev. Dr. Terry Troia announced, “and I’m tired.”

Just days after Dr. Lucy Cabrera announced her retirement after twenty-three years as chief executive of the Food Bank, the Conference was also an opportunity to celebrate her work. Notably, the organization went from distributing 500,000 pounds of food to distributing 74 million pounds of food annually during her tenure. She was also credited with envisioning a policy and research division. One Food Bank report, NYC Hunger Experience, tracks annual trends in hunger in the city. This year, the report indicated a slight decrease in difficulty affording food coupled with reports of reduced quality or quantity of food. The pressure on pantries is increasing, particularly for produce and animal protein, for which the pantry may be the only source. How do emergency food providers address this increased pressure? Add to that, the dichotomy of nutritious food versus quantity. It’s about “balance” and “tone,” researcher Áine Duggan cautioned, and “avoiding dogma.”

In a spirited and informative discussion on bringing more healthy food into a pantry setting, panelists and participants shared ideas. Asking questions, learning about clients’ needs and views, and flexibility are critical to improving diets. One panelist shared a story about talking to clients who were throwing away whole apples and pears at a soup kitchen because they didn’t have teeth to chew them. The soup kitchen now serves cut and cooked fruit, and fruit consumption is up. Ideas for reducing overall meat consumption centered around education because so many people believe that “if they don’t have meat, they have nothing to eat.” One pantry clusters foods by food groups, so clients will associate beans and dairy with other forms of protein; another has a nutrition educator who visually demonstrates real portion sizes; and another has vegetarian pantry days, a swap table, and incentives to forgo meat.

During a peer sharing session, participants delved into the nuances of building relationships and trust with donors, volunteers, and the community served. In a discussion on advertising, one seasoned service provider shared: “I go to the Dominican hairdresser. I go to the Chinese restaurant. I go to the projects and the laundromat—I know my pantry.” Issues of language competency, unscrupulous volunteers, inventory control, and a litany of resources were also considered as the room filled with humor and dynamic tension. “Politics plays a big role in pantries,” one attendee surmised with a nod.

During lunch, Dr. Cabrera reminisced about the first agency conference, held in a musty church basement. The decision—and cost—of holding the catered event at the Marriott hotel was a way of saying thanks to the unsung heroes in the trenches: “It’s our gift to you.”