Hunger in the south Bronx is nothing new. A quarter of the borough’s population — 30 percent of children, 15 percent of the working poor and 20 percent of senior citizens — don’t have enough food, according to a recent report by Hunger Free America.
Stagnant wages cannot keep pace with soaring housing and medical costs. Despite low unemployment and a record-breaking stock market, nearly 40 million Americans struggled with hunger in 2018. Of those, more than 14 million were employed, according to the report.
Every month, there are more than 1.6 million New York City residents receiving help through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Although the number of people facing food shortages fell citywide in the past six years, the Bronx has seen little improvement. Nearly 300,000 people in the borough struggled to buy or obtain nutritious food consistently, according to the report. More than 80 percent of the borough’s emergency food programs like soup kitchens and food pantries saw increases in people coming to them for help.
Results of the report were announced Nov. 21 by Hunger Free America chief executive Joel Burg at Part of the Solution on Webster Avenue. POTS helps low-income people and families with food, social services and legal representation. It has a restaurant-style dining room open to all, and a pantry people can apply to use.
“We hold a daily food service and that’s open to whoever needs it,” said POTS development associate Louis Otero. “We made sure that we’re there every day to feed and nourish our community with a healthy and balanced meal they can rely on.”
POTS feeds 30,000 people annually, including 9,000 children and 2,000 seniors, said Kymberly Dean, another POTS associate.
“In 2019 so far, POTS has served over 1.14 million meals through its emergency food programs, which includes its community dining room and its food pantry,” Deane said.
The food comes either directly from food suppliers, Otero said, or is bought using monetary donations from individuals, houses of worship and corporations.
The pantry is small, but a huge pallet of rice towers in a corner. Cereals, soups and canned vegetables sit in orderly rows on the shelves. The donation of two large refrigerators allow POTS to offer fresh produce, which is vital to providing the nutrition-rich foods sometimes absent from food banks.
In the dining room, any hungry individual standing in line is beckoned inside and pointed to a table. Almost as soon as they sit down, a young volunteer places a plate of hot, nutritious food in front of them — no questions asked.
The dining room participates in Meatless Mondays, so on this particular day, the kitchen was dishing up seasoned chickpeas, green beans, rice and a hunk of fresh bread.
POTS volunteer coordinator Stephanie Caban greets people as they came through the door, showing them to an open seat. She handles the 40-some volunteers necessary to serve the daily meals. POTS has some 3,000 volunteers in the system Caban can call on.
“Thankfully, most volunteers find us,” she said. “We especially get a lot of calls to serve around the holidays.”
The most common misconception about people who rely on food banks, she added, is that they’re all homeless.
“People think that there’s one look to that person,” Caban said. “They say, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t have guessed that they were homeless or were food insecure just by looking at them.’”
Those who need help can still be clean and well-dressed. They can have jobs, vehicles or homes. But it doesn’t mean they don’t struggle to put food on the table, she said. Many people who depend on food pantries are the working poor who make too little to have the food they need, but too much to qualify for more than a pittance in SNAP benefits.
“I know a lot of people who think that a person has to look a certain way in order to be here,” Caban said. “But the truth is, they’re just like you and me.”
Back in the kitchen, Brenda Serrano serves up plates as the meal service gets into full swing. Her association with POTS began more than 20 years ago.
“I was getting services here in 1998,” she said. “And then in 2002, I started as a volunteer.”
In 2016, she took a temporary paid position working in the kitchen, and she was hired on as a full staff member the following year.
“I chose this because they helped me out,” Serrano said. “I wanted to give back to help them out.”
The best part about her job?
“Them,” she said, pointing to the hungry people enjoying their lunch. “It’s all about them.”