By Anna Mejorada
Twenty-five percent of Community Board (CB) 7 residents are “food insecure,” according to the “Meal Gap,” New York City’s official measure of food insecurity. It represents meals missing from an adequate, nutritious diet.
“Food insecurity,” according to the Department of Agriculture (USDA), is the “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or the limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.”
Reducing food insecurity was the topic of CB7’s Health & Human Services Committee meeting in April. Members gathered over Zoom to discuss the latest data, as well as lessons learned during the pandemic about how to address food insecurity. The committee plans to submit a resolution allocating funds to address food insecurity, and prepare the community for the next large-scale state of emergency.
Dr. Sara Abiola, Executive Director of the Food, Education & Policy Program in Nutrition at Columbia University, was a guest speaker. In collaboration with the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center and CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute, Dr. Abiola helped formulate New York Food 2025 — specific policy measures the New York City mayor and City Council should consider to create a stronger, healthier, more just, and sustainable food system in New York City.
As part of the pandemic response, NYC launched several programs and devoted millions of dollars to address food insecurity, but those programs, including GetFood and P-FRED (Pandemic Food Reserve Emergency Distribution Program) were designed to be short-term emergency relief programs.
Dr. Abiola emphasized the need to strengthen and connect food assistance programs throughout the city into a coordinated agency focused on food security promotion. This includes maximizing enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – the nation’s largest food security and poverty reduction program — and the establishment of a user-friendly, city-wide system measuring and monitoring food insecurity in each neighborhood.
“Cultural inclusivity” for people accessing food is an integral component of food security, Dr. Abiola stressed. Dietary restrictions related to cultural or religious beliefs have significantly hindered programs in the past when appropriate options are not available.
Greg Silverman, Executive Director and CEO of the West Side Campaign Against Hunger (WSCAH) also spoke about food insecurity, with an emphasis on the need for convenience and choice in how food is delivered to individuals.
Currently, WSCAH offers pickup from their outpost at St. Paul and St. Andrew United Methodist Church on 86th Street and West End Avenue, where they serve thousands of customers from across the city each week. The organization pioneered the supermarket-style distribution model focused on choice and offers customers an array of healthy options, including fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins, and dairy.
During the height of the pandemic, when many were hesitant to be in public, WSCAH saw a decline in senior citizen customers. However, they saw a significant increase in the number of customers overall and still are seeing numbers higher today than those served pre-pandemic. In a time of great need, WSCAH was able to partner with other organizations, such as United Way and DoorDash, to deliver groceries to those who could not come to the physical location, but that is not a sustainable approach to address the needs of the city.
At this time, while things are relatively stable, Silverman stressed the urgency to develop and implement a sustainable workforce devoted to serving the needs of individuals experiencing food insecurity through technology. “In an area where those with means can have groceries delivered in under 15 minutes, there should be a more straightforward way to get food to everyone in need,” Silverman said.
In addition to food, WSCAH helps their customers register for existing programs including SNAP and housing vouchers, and the organization recently rented a warehouse in a former USPS building in Washington Heights where they plan to serve their network of partners across the city.
The committee was unanimous in its decision to devote support towards New York Food 2025 and WSCAH, and “plan to get into the nitty-gritty numbers of what is needed,” per board member Shelly Fine, “to inform the budget in their official proposal for the Mayor.”