By Daniel Figueroa
In a small warehouse at the intersection of the Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville and Ocean Hill neighborhoods in Brooklyn, a food pantry takes an unusual approach to helping people in need. Stocked with a wide range of food, including silk milk and brown rice, this pantry gives people the opportunity to go in and select food, just as they would in a store, rather than receive receiving a package of whatever is available.
The BSCAH SuperPantry is operated by BedStuy Campaign Against Hunger, a nonprofit organization that provides food to low-income people and families. About half the food it distributes each month feeds children and more than a quarter goes to the elderly.
Some of the food is donated by Food Bank for New York City, a hunger-relief nonprofit, and some by the ShopRite supermarkets. Much is purchased, using funds from grants and donations.
“I purchase from local vendors whether it’s distributed here in New York or if I have to price things out of state and have it ship in by pallets for things that I would want,” said Tamara Dawson, director of the pantry program. “All our items that I purchased are low sodium or low salt.” She said the pantry focuses on the nutritional value of what it distributes.
The pantry is only one aspect of the services provided by the BedStuy Campaign Against Hunger, which has about two dozen workers, most of them volunteers. The organization reported revenue of $4.2 million in the last fiscal year, of which $3.9 million came from contributions. People seeking assistance from the pantry must visit the office and register, and the coalition also provides social services for those in need, including help for those eligible for food stamps, obtaining health insurance and preparation of tax returns.
The SuperPantry stocks up three times a week and is packed with black beans, fresh vegetables, fruits and shelves with canned and boxed foods. The pantry always needs help, said its supervisor, Janel Major, because there are “always people in need.” On a typical weekday about 200 people come in for food, said Paul Jones, an employee at the pantry, who volunteered at the pantry for four years before becoming a full-time employee.
“I love giving back to the community,” said Jones, 24. “Back to people that are going through whatever they going through,” said Jones.
Patrons of the pantry receive a colored card that is based on the number of people in their households. The color cards are “money” that is used to pay for their food. Dawson said the pantry provided an average of 25,000 to 30,000 meals a month.
But people are allowed to come in only once a month. “We don’t feed them for the entire month; we feed them for three days,” said Dawson. “So, we give them three meals for three days, a total of nine meals per visit.” In addition, people with health issues can come once a week for fresh produce. The food is divided into three categories: fruits and vegetables, produce and grain.
Magen Allen, communications coordinator for the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, said she thought hunger should be addressed by the federal government. “We especially promote advocacy programs to increase funding for pantries and soup kitchens,” she said. “Not only New York City but across the country. We believe that, first and far most, hunger is poverty, is a federal issue and increasing funding to the federal programs like SNAP,” the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as the food stamp program is now called, “or money allocating to pantries.”
In the coming year, the BedStuy campaign hopes to have a truck that will visit low-income housing to distribute or to sell produces at a very low cost.
The 2015 Annual Hunger Brooklyn Survey report found that between “2012-2014, one million New York State residents lived in households that included at least one person working, but were food insecure, unable to consistently afford enough food. Of the adults between the ages of 15 and 65 in the state who were food insecure, 47 percent were working.”
In Brooklyn, 25 percent of all children live in food-insecure homes and 19 percent of seniors live in food in-secure homes, the report said.
As of 2015, the Annual Hunger Brooklyn Survey reported, “Of the food pantries and soup kitchens that responded to our survey, 53 percent reported not having enough food to meet current demand.”