Millions of New Yorkers depend on federal help to access fresh, healthy food through the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP.
But now that SNAP is under threat by the Trump administration, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is calling on the state’s congressional delegation to reject proposed cuts to SNAP that could reduce benefits by up to 30 percent.
“The Trump administration’s harvest box proposal makes their priorities crystal clear by slashing critical assistance to families in need to fund tax cuts for corporations,” Cuomo said in a release. “This is an unnecessary change to an effective, important program, and I urge Congress to reverse this effort to take food away from New York’s hungry families.”
SNAP helps nearly 3 million New Yorkers in 1.6 million households, two-thirds of them in families with children. In his latest budget, Trump would cut benefits for about 80 percent of the state’s SNAP recipients, replacing the current system with what he calls the “harvest box” initiative, in which a portion of a recipient’s benefits would be pre-packaged into a one-size-fits-all box containing items like shelf-stable milk, ready-to-eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, and canned fruits and vegetables.
Lucy Mercado has a passion for eating well. She loves her collards and kale, and along with Consuelo Hernandez, runs the Kingsbridge-Riverdale Farmer’s Market at the Episcopal Church of the Mediator, bringing organic, locally grown produce to the neighborhood.
The market doesn’t take SNAP. Still, the federal help alone just isn’t enough, Mercado said, calling it a supplement, not a solution.
“When you run out of (SNAP benefits), what do you do?” Mercado said. “Whatever amount is given is not enough, especially if you’re a person who wants to eat healthy. It’s not going to cover a whole lot.”
That’s why community gardening initiatives in places like Marble Hill, which Mercado calls home, are attractive to people surviving on a limited income. It allows residents to grow their own vegetables and not rely solely on the system.
And Mercado knows. She’s needed help from the system in the past.
“It’s very expensive to live in New York City,” Mercado said. “I had a hard time finding something in the summer. By August, when I didn’t have work, and I couldn’t wait a month until school started, I was forced to get emergency food stamps, and it did help me.”
But even with benefits, eating well is still tricky.
“The thing is, when you do have access to food stamps, you have to make sure you stretch the dollar amount, whatever they give to you” Mercado said. “Meat is expensive, and I’m not much of a meat eater anyway, so to sustain myself, I went to Whole Foods, to their bulk section, and bought whatever nuts or grains or beans, things that you can get in bulk and won’t cost as much and can sustain you, and that helped me.”
Yet, not everyone has a schedule that allows time to get to the closest Whole Foods, located in Harlem. Especially families with children.
“I struggle to be healthy, but I know other people, when you have kids, you’re no longer thinking about yourself,” Mercado said. “You have to provide for your children. It’s a different situation.
While not having kids makes it easier, still, Mercado said, she helps care for her parents, and at times it’s difficult not to lapse into less healthy habits.
With SNAP slashed, those in need might be forced to rely more heavily on other resources, such as the Kingsbridge-Riverdale-Marble Hill Food & Hunger Project, providing groceries through a weekly food pantry at the Mediator, as well as a monthly grocery-bagging project at The Riverdale Y, delivering food to senior citizens unable to leave their homes.
The problem is, organizations like the hunger project might not be able to handle the growth.
“In 2008, we had the Great Recession, and we really saw people being affected by that, and SNAP cuts really could impact people,” said Frances Segan, president of the hunger project. “But it’s important people knowing that they can come if they need food.”
But even as things stand now, such initiatives can’t provide unlimited sustenance.
“Once a month, we give (recipients) two bags of food,” Segan said. “Vegetables, beans, meat, fish, rice, pasta, tomato sauce, fruit, evaporated milk, oatmeal. Occasionally, we run out of something.”
When that happens, volunteers add an alternative to the bags for the roughly 30 recipients that come each week.
If that crowd grows larger, it could strain the project’s resources.
“We don’t have the wherewithal,” Segan said. “We’re a grassroots movement, and it’s supplementary. We do what we can to help people.”
Lack of food is especially nefarious for children.
“It’s like a vicious cycle,” said Mediator’s Rev. Loyda Morales. “They need to have nutrients in their body so they could keep awake when they’re at school to learn.”
But it’s extremely difficult for parents, too.
“You get desperate,” Morales said. “‘What am I going to feed my child?’ Sometimes parents sacrifice themselves. ‘OK, I give it to my child. They’re younger, they need the food more.’ And the prices of food continue to increase, so it’s less food, even if you’re working.”
Even buying in bulk isn’t a fail-proof method.
“They don’t eat all that and it gets spoiled and has to be thrown into the trash,” Morales said. “And you compare that to a family, that food would’ve helped them.”
What’s clear to Mercado is that Trump’s proposed plan cuts to the quick of a critical issue, a question of survival in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
“If you don’t eat properly, you can’t think,” Mercado said. “You think about why people become homeless. It’s a trickle-down effect. People give up. They lose their mind. They don’t eat properly, and they’re not working and they break apart mentally as well, and they just lose it.
“And what do they turn to? Alcohol, drugs, to be able to numb themselves and completely give up on life.”