Op-ed: Hunger remains a problem for New Yorkers amid COVID-19 pandemic

Close-up of delivery man handing a slack of foam lunch box
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Sadly, hunger in New York City is not a new problem. 

Sky high rent prices, stubbornly low wages, and the high cost of living in one of the richest cities in the world means that many New Yorkers have to sacrifice on food to pay for rent and other basic necessities.  

At the beginning of this Council’s session in 2018, 40 percent of providers said they didn’t have enough food to meet demand. This was well before COVID and at a time of economic prosperity in our city. 

The problems back then were two-fold. The nonprofits that operated these programs needed money to serve those in need, but also stable funding.  

The federal government wasn’t helping.   

Cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, exacerbated the need for food pantries and left the more than 1.5 million New Yorkers who relied on the program out in the cold. 

The Council stepped up. 

We increased funding for emergency food and for senior meals and created new programs to address food insecurity at the City University of New York to stop college students from going hungry, a prevalent but little-known problem in our city. 

Over the past four budget cycles, we’ve increased funding for food programs by $55 million. Our most significant achievements was changing how we funded the Emergency Food Assistance Program. 

In fiscal year 2019, we fought to baseline $20.2 million for this program, meaning the money was automatically added to the budget every year. In the past this funding was never guaranteed, leaving providers in limbo annually. 

This allowed food providers to better plan on how to feed vulnerable New Yorkers and have the money to do so. 

Then COVID-19 hit. 

Virtually overnight, the number of food insecure New Yorkers went from 1.2 million to 2 million and nearly one-third of food pantries shut down during the early days of the crisis. 

Many pantries managed to stay open because of our years of investment in food programs, but we knew more was needed to meet this unprecedented challenge.  

We aggressively and successfully pushed both the de Blasio administration and the state government to each designate $25 million in emergency funds for food programs in April.

These funds will help hundreds of organizations including food pantries, soup kitchens and charities that deliver meals or groceries to those in need. Nearly 80% of that $25 million will reach local food pantries, as we know pantry visits continue to increase each week. 

With the City’s $25 million, the Council focused on high-need, low-income, food-insecure areas, and recommended organizations operating in these communities. Additionally, the Council identified providers which serve immigrant communities across the five boroughs.   

In the meantime, the State’s $25 million under the Nourish New York initiative, provides emergency funds for food banks and providers which serve the populations that need it the most.  

Aiming to increase food access, the funds not only help families in need across the City and the State, they also tackle existing disparities.    

We are also proud that our recently passed budget for 2021 contains no cuts to Council-funded food programs despite a $9 billion budget deficit. 

All of this work contributes to our ultimate goal of addressing inequity in all forms in New York City, including food inequity. Every New Yorker deserves access to healthy affordable food.  

It’s governments’ job to make sure residents get the resources they need, especially during a public health and financial crisis when so many of them are sick or out of work.  

Those in need should call 3-1-1 and say “Get Food” or visit the City’s COVID-19 emergency food site at nyc.gov/getfood

Corey Johnson is Speaker of the City Council; Vanessa Gibson chairs the Council’s Subcommittee on Capital Budget; Mark Treyger chairs the Council’s Education Committee.