By Ashleigh Baker
Every Wednesday, a line of about 400 people wraps around the corner of 227th Street and Paulding Avenue in the Baychester area of the Bronx. They are waiting outside the Bronx Bethany Church of the Nazarene to pick up a box of food from the church’s food pantry or to be registered for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — also known as food stamps.
Bronx Bethany Church has been helping to feed local residents for the past 10 years. “Our church mission is to respond practically and compassionately to human needs in the neighborhood,” said Doreen Rutty who has been a member of Bronx Bethany since the 1980s and has been in charge of the food pantry since it opened in 2003.
Almost all of the families who visit the church’s food pantry each week are residents of the Edenwald houses, the largest New York City Housing Authority development in the Bronx, which is located three blocks away from the Church. The housing project is home to 5,450 residents who earn a median income of $15,000 – $25,000 annually.
Since first opening the food pantry, Rutty has noticed an increase in the number of hungry families in the area who need food. In the past four years, the number has been growing faster than ever. Much of this growth can be attributed to “residents who have recently lost their jobs or are new immigrants who need help,” said Rutty. “Every week, there is an increase of 20 to 35 families.”
The demand for food has become so great lately that the church created a schedule for when families are allowed to join the food pantry line. The first Wednesday of the month is designated for families whose last names begin with the letters A-to-C; the second Wednesday is for families with last names beginning with the letters D-J, and so forth. “When we saw the amount of people who would show up, we had to figure out a way to feed everyone and not have such a long line, so we gave visitors ID’s and told them which Wednesday to come,” Rutty said.
Approximately 92 percent of the residents in the Edenwald Houses are African-American and Hispanic. Of these, 17 percent reported incomes below the poverty level during the past 12 months and 41 percent are receiving public assistance, according to U.S. Census data. About a quarter of the families in the area are currently receiving SNAP benefits.
On an afternoon in October, Yanique Wright, a 27-year-old single mother of two who lives in the Edenwald houses, stood in line at the food pantry waiting for a box of canned kidney beans, macaroni and cheese, a box of cereal, Uncle Ben’s rice, canned string beans and corn, tuna fish and a can of pears. Wright, who has received food stamps for the last eight months, said the amount she receives isn’t enough to feed her entire family. “What they give me in stipends isn’t enough,” said Wright. “I have to come here just to make sure I can feed everybody.”
A couple of weeks later, the plight of families like Wright’s became more desperate. On Nov. 1, the food stamp program suffered automatic spending cuts when a 2009 stimulus bill that had temporarily boosted SNAP benefits during the recession, was allowed to expire, shrinking the program by about $5 billion. The spending cuts reduced the average SNAP benefits families receive by about $396 a year, according to the Feeding America organization. A family of four saw a cut of $36 per month.
Pending additional state and national legislation could cut the food stamp program further. A bill that passed the House this fall, which President Obama has threatened to veto, would cut an additional $39 billion from the food-stamp program over the next decade; close to four million people would be removed from the program or see their benefits cut further, if the legislation were to pass.
Organizations like the Bronx Bethany Church Food Pantry have found their resources stretched thin as families whose wages or food stipends do not last through the month find themselves increasingly dependent on charitable giving. The pantry relies on the New York City Food Bank, grants from the United Way, a national charity, and donations from the church’s congregation. Bronx Bethany Food Pantry managers fear that the amount they currently serve is not enough. “We can’t give as much as we want — we don’t have enough to feed all the families,” said Rutty.
Indeed, the food pantry also helps the working poor whose wages disqualify them from receiving public assistance and SNAP, but whose earnings are not enough to feed their families. Glendenise Williams, who lives in a nearby apartment with her 20-year-old daughter and her mother, recently left the pantry with a box of food. “Apparently my daughter, mother and I together make too much money to qualify us for food stamps,” said a frustrated Williams, rolling her eyes. “It’s ridiculous because clearly I don’t, since I have to come to a food pantry.”
Williams and her mother both work as housekeepers at a hotel in lower Manhattan, and her daughter works part-time as a barista in a Bronx Starbucks. Williams has been coming to the pantry off and on for the past year, but only during the months when she cannot make ends meet. Williams is the primary breadwinner for her household and also helps support other family members. Williams pays about $1000 per month in rent for her two-bedroom apartment, which leaves her with little to spend on groceries and bills. “I mean, after I pay the rent and bills, I hardly have anything left over,” said Williams. “So when I have some rough times, I come here to get a little extra.”