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Funding disorder: Mark Dunlea. Photo by Teri Currie.

Who Will Feed the People?

Hunger in the Capital Region is on the rise—and so is the fear that New York state will reduce funding for emergency food programs

It’s that time of the year again when the airports are packed with holiday travelers, the lines at the grocery stores are congested with shoppers, and people everywhere are bustling about in preparation for Thanksgiving dinner. Many people will not have to think twice about whether or not they will have a place to go this Thursday, with a spread waiting for them when they arrive. But a large number of New Yorkers will go hungry this holiday season, and that number appears to be on the rise.

According to a recent survey taken by the Hunger Action Network of New York State, the number of people seeking services from food pantries and soup kitchens is up 28 percent from last year. However, the amount of donations is down by 30 to 40 percent.

At a press conference on Monday, religious leaders and emergency food providers voiced their concerns about the increase of people seeking services from emergency food programs. Many attribute the rise of those in need to job loss. Sheila McCarthy, community food coordinator for HANNYS, said that with the decline in the stock market, many businesses, which in the past would have given generously around this time of year, seem to be tightening their belts.

The Rev. Donna Elia, of Troy Area United Ministries, said that her program is feeling the effects of an increase in those seeking services. Just last month, she said, the number of referrals to her organization rose from 82 to 200.

“We are full to capacity and we have been forced to turn people away,” said Elia.

The Rev. James Reisner, Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church, has seen the same trend in the South End of Albany, where he does a large amount of his ministry work.

“In the South End, the number of people seeking services has doubled this past year,” said Reisner. “The gap between those who have and those who have not is increasing, especially when you look at an area like the South End and Arbor Hill. We have a growing underclass.”

Organizers of food pantries are also concerned that the state’s budget deficit, estimated at $6 to $8 billion this year, could add to an already-growing crisis. They hope that the $24 million dollars a year in state funding for emergency food programs will be maintained, but many are concerned that their programs will be among the first to receive cuts. They also contend that unless funding for emergency food programs is increased, it will be difficult for many organizations to operate because of the rise in the amount of people seeking services.

“This is no time to balance the state budget on the backs of the poor,” said Mark Dunlea, associate director of HANNYS. “Emergency food programs are already overburdened, and 87 percent responding to our survey expect an increase in the number of guests within the next six months. It is therefore imperative that funding for social programs like these be preserved, if not increased, during these devastating times.”

Many would like to see Congress include increased funding for training and education as part of the federal reauthorization of welfare. McCarthy said that many people leaving welfare-to-work programs last year found jobs that paid below the state’s poverty level, leading them to depend on food pantries and soup kitchens to support their families.

“Cutting state funding to the EFPs would make it impossible for food pantries and soup kitchens to keep up with the increasing number of households utilizing these services,” said Reisner.

—Nancy Guerin

Time for Giving

John Whipple.

More than 60 people turned out for a holiday toy drive at the Islamic Center of the Capital District in Schenectady on Nov. 19. The event was a joint effort between two organizations: Women Against War and the Women of the Islamic Center of the Capital District. The two groups collected toys for those families that cannot afford to buy their children gifts for the Muslim holiday Eid, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. The families that will receive these gifts are those whose fathers have been detained or deported by the United States government since Sept. 11, 2001. According to Shokreia Yaghi, whose husband was picked up last October by the FBI and was deported to Jordan in July, Ramadan is a very difficult time of year for those families in need, and as with Christmas, many children look forward to receiving gifts for Eid. Yaghi will bring the presents to a dinner in New York City this Saturday where the toys will be distributed.

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