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New Yorkers Help Neighbors at Thanksgiving - 2003-11-26

On Thanksgiving many Americans take part in a traditional holiday feast and express their appreciation to God for the bounty they have been fortunate enough to receive. Some New Yorkers are also taking the time to help their less fortunate neighbors.

A long line forms outside this food bank in New York City. Dozens of people lean on their shopping carts. Bundled in warm winter coats, hats and gloves, they wait in the crisp, early morning hours for a free package of canned and fresh food.

Florence Messiah does not need a turkey because she is spending Thanksgiving with relatives. But she takes a weekly trip to the food pantry because she lives on a tight budget and can use the free groceries.

"It makes a big difference, it does. You save money, so I do not mind walking these blocks to get the stuff," she said.

Inside, volunteers have formed an assembly line to fill brown paper bags with food items. "There is cranberry sauce, there are vegetables, there is canned fruit, there are some turkeys that we will be giving out later," said one of the volunteers.

Many of the volunteers have been given a morning off from work at New York-based corporations to give back to the community before Thanksgiving. Hester Sullivan is the deputy director of the center, which provides groceries to more than 400 people a week and serves hot meals to more than 100 people every day. She says before the holidays, she can use the extra hands.

"We wanted to have extra bags because what happens is we see a lot of people coming in for emergency food during holidays," said Ms. Sullivan, "especially when their kids are out of school because it overtaxes their already overtaxed burden, so it is a whole other population that is food insecure in the holiday."

According to a new study by the private Hunger Action Network, an estimated 900,000 New Yorkers visited emergency food programs each week in 2002.

The report, which was based on a detailed survey of more than 600 different food programs, says that last year, demand for emergency food rose by more than 20 percent in New York State. More than half of the programs in the study also reported an increase in children and senior citizens using the services.

Activists say the situation has not improved for many low-income New Yorkers, despite indications that the economy is growing. Officials estimate that since the September 11, 2001, attacks, New York lost more than 100,000 jobs.

Unemployment, shrinking donations, and cuts in government programs are reported to have contributed to difficulties in putting food on the table.

"I will say, no, we do not have hunger in America the same way we might in Ethiopia, or North Korea or parts of Latin America," explained Joel Berg of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, which helped conduct the survey. "There are not people starving on the street. Why? Number one, because we do have a federal nutrition safety net, which has been reduced, but is still there, and because we do have this incredible network of food banks, food rescue organizations, soup kitchens, and food pantries that prevent people from starving."

But Mr. Berg estimates that due to a growing demand for and a shortage of supplies, food programs in New York had to turn away more than 100,000 people last year. "In the richest city in the planet, to have more than 100,000 people when they finally go to get charitable food not be able to get it, really is a crisis that needs to be addressed," he said.

Mr. Berg is calling for an $8 million increase in state funding, a minimum wage hike in New York and the expansion of federal food programs.

Back outside the food pantry, Maggie Otero has been waiting with her two children since before dawn. She says she recently recovered from a debilitating illness, but she faced the cold for a Thanksgiving turkey.

"For Thanksgiving my plan is to be with my kids, to be thankful that I am still alive and to have a family night," she said.

Ms. Otero, who is studying to be a surgical technician, says she hopes that next year, after she has graduated, she will have a job to help pay for her Thanksgiving feast.