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New York's Economic Downturn Sees More People at Food Pantries - 2003-05-13

An organization that works to relieve hunger in New York City reports a 45 percent jump in the number of people visiting emergency food programs in the city since September 11, 2001. Many of the newly hungry are members of middle class families who lost their jobs and were unable to find new ones in the faltering economy.

Two years ago, anyone in need of a free meal at a food pantry on the Upper West Side of Manhattan got one. Now, with the city's economic health taking a turn for the worse, the pantry has been forced to turn people away.

The anti-hunger group, City Harvest, says this is a new trend.

For more than 20 years, City Harvest has been "rescuing" food - that is, collecting good food that restaurants, caterers or company kitchens would otherwise throw away. The group then delivers the food to more than 800 food pantries, soup kitchens, senior citizen centers and after-school programs throughout New York City.

On any given day, City Harvest collects and delivers about 45,000 pounds of food. The group feeds about 200,000 people each week.

Julia Erickson, executive director of City Harvest, says the economic decline in New York since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, is evident in the larger numbers of people seeking food relief.

"We are seeing since 9/11 [the terror attacks of September 11, 2001,] a really vast increase, 45 percent, in the number of people who are seeking emergency food. Prior to 9/11, a study was done that showed that in the year 2000, 1.5 million people sought emergency food. If you take a 45 percent increase, we are looking at well over two million New Yorkers who will need emergency food at one point or another throughout the year," she said.

Ms. Erickson said these are people who have lost their jobs in the hospitality and airline industry, as well as the restaurant industry. Job losses in New York City are at their highest in 30 years, and unemployment hovers at nine percent. Ms. Erickson said people across a wider socio-economic spectrum are turning to places where they can get food.

"Ninety-percent of the people who seek emergency food have homes. So we are not talking [about] homeless people. 75 percent are families with kids. Twenty-five to 30 percent are senior citizens. So we are talking about elderly people, people who have already worked. They may be frail, and they come out of their house once a day to get a meal. Fully half the people we are serving are moms and kids," she said.

Ms. Erickson said that at a soup kitchen in the hard-hit Wall Street area, people in low-paying jobs are arriving to get a hot meal after work. "In the Wall Street area, you see bicycle messengers coming in after work and sitting down for a meal, or other young people who cannot make ends meet going to a traditional soup kitchen. These are not substance abusers, or alcoholics, but working people," she said.

Ms. Erickson calls the current situation "a perfect storm," in which government and city funds continue to be cut, as economic conditions worsen and the number of people looking for their only hot meal of the day continues to climb.