NEW YORK— New York City is facing a record demand for emergency food services, even as fewer resources are being provided, forcing thousands to go hungry.

“It’s hard to say what the exact number is, but about 1.4 million people in New York depend on these food services,” Susan Davis of the NYC Coalition Against Hunger (NYCCAH) told the World. According to the 2000 census, the population of NYC is 8 million, pointing to a whopping figure of more than one out of every six people in need of these services.

The numbers mean that it is not only the homeless or the unemployed who are facing hunger. A growing number of the working poor are finding themselves in soup kitchens. The report states that there was about a 9 percent increase in the number of people using soup kitchens in 2003-2004, and a 48 percent increase since 2000.

Joel Berg, executive director of NYCCAH, said, “Parents are working hard and playing by the rules — working 40, 50, and sometimes even 60 hours every week. But their children still face hunger.” Berg called on the state Legislature to override Republican Gov. George Pataki’s veto of an increase in the state’s minimum wage, currently $5.15 an hour, the bare minimum allowed by federal law.

“A few years ago, we thought things were getting better,” said Miriam Lee of St. Joseph’s soup kitchen. “Now the numbers are climbing back up. I don’t even have a chance to talk to them, there are so many people coming in. At our Thanksgiving party — we don’t have enough for that many turkeys, but we do tablecloths and parties three or four times a year — we had about 570 people, the most we’ve done since 1997.”

Lee told the World her community is better off than many others. “Holy Apostle Church in Chelsea does more than 1,000 a day. In the outer boroughs, you’ll find many widows, people who lost their husbands in 9/11, restaurant workers who weren’t able to leave anything behind.”

While most agencies providing food to the hungry have reported an increase in the number of people seeking assistance — 82 percent in all — most agencies have received cuts in funding.

Pataki’s 2004 budget proposed to give $22.8 million to the state program providing some funding for soup kitchens, which is $2 million less than in 2001. The budget passed by the state Legislature used $350,000 surplus from the Temporary Aid to Needy Families to fill some of the hole, but the governor vetoed this.

The funding cuts have caused 48 agencies to close, and more than half of the remaining agencies to ration their food by either turning away hungry New Yorkers, reducing portion size, and/or cutting hours of operation, the NYCCAH said. It estimates that 67,704 people were turned away this year, 60 percent more than in 2003.

Also standing in the way of reform is Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“As more families go hungry, the Bloomberg administration often fails to help them,” says Public Advocate Betty Gotbaum. “The Human Resource Administration takes too long to process food stamp applications, has a history of making it difficult for people to apply for food stamps, and does a poor job of helping people in an emergency. Unless immediate improvements to their operations takes place, hundreds of thousands of children and seniors may go hungry.”

The author can be reached at dmargolis@pww.org

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