Mearl Grant's biggest concern is that no one seeking help at the United Methodist Center in Far Rockaway goes away hungry or empty-handed.
As 2012 drew to a close, that was an ongoing task in this coastal section of New York, where some of the city's poorest citizens took a beating from Hurricane Sandy.
In any community, when disaster strikes, the number of people needing assistance from food pantries and other feeding programs goes up.
During the past year, natural disasters such as drought, flooding and hurricane-force winds, combined with the global disintegration of economic safety nets, have made hunger an almost intractable reality.
In Africa, for example, the effect of spiking food prices in places already dealing with drought or flooding can be devastating to poor families who spend up to 80 percent of their total income on food, as a briefing paper prepared by DanChurchAid for World Food Day in October pointed out.
ACT Alliance has warned of a new global food crisis. "This year's price boom is the third of its kind in just four years, evidence that higher, more volatile food prices may be the new norm," declared the faith-based organization, whose members include the United Methodist Committee on Relief and Church World Service.
Poverty in the United States accounts for the fact that nearly 49 million Americans, including 16.2 million children, often do not get enough to eat, according to Bread for the World.
Expanding to meet the need
How to give
In Queens, N.Y., the regular hot-lunch program at the United Methodist Center in Far Rockaway at 1032 Beach 19 St. has gone into overdrive since Hurricane Sandy struck.
Grant, the center's director, lost his vehicle Oct. 29 to Sandy's floodwaters, but still managed to walk over the day afterward to open up. "The freezers were thawing out, so I gave out all the meat we had, all the groceries," he said. "People were lined up."
Thanks to continuous donations from FEMA, fire and police departments, the local congressional representative, churches and organizations Grant had never heard of, the Far Rockaway mission has not missed serving a meal. Blankets, clothes and other supplies also are available.
What once was a weekday lunchtime-only operation has expanded for an indefinite period, beginning with coffee and rolls, pastries and bagels at 8 a.m. Hours have started on Saturdays, and another meal follows the 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. worship on Sundays. The number of people stopping by has jumped from about 150 to nearly 250 a day since the storm.
"We just continuously serve (food) most of the day," he said.
Whether living in tenements or one-family homes, Grant explained, "a lot of the people in the area lost everything." Some are undocumented. "They're reluctant to go to any city or state agency. We don't ask for any identification. We serve anyone, whoever comes to our door."
"The most vulnerable of the communities are always the hardest hit," he explained. "Those families are just barely getting by."
When low-income families lose everything, he added, "they have a harder time regaining a foothold."
Donations made to UMCOR for its relief and recovery work filter down to the denomination's annual (regional) conferences, and "very often some of that support goes to some of those food pantries that provide those services for families," Hazelwood said. "That's our goal, to serve that population."
A disaster's ripple effects can expand far beyond those directly impacted. The week after Hurricane Sandy hit New York, Louise Davis waited patiently in line at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger, a food pantry at the United Methodist Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew.
The Manhattan neighborhood where she lives and the food pantry is based did not sustain damage from the storm. However, Davis, 61, lost three days of work because of massive disruptions in the city's transportation system. Her usual journey to the day-care center in the Bronx where she is employed involves two subway trains and a bus.
"I couldn't go back and forth," she explained. "I had to stay in one spot."
Despite her lost income, Davis was more concerned about the "less fortunate" storm survivors. "My prayers go out to them," she said.
Demand up at food pantries
Louise Davis waits for her turn to shop at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger food pantry.
A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
The West Side Campaign Against Hunger has expanded its customer base from the immediate neighborhood to all five boroughs of the city during the 20 years that Doreen Wohl has served as executive director. Between July and September this year, the food pantry provided enough healthy food for 264,355 meals.
The campaign's current structure, initiated in 1994, functions as a customer cooperative and relies on volunteer work by those customers. A social services office, staffed by a supervisor and six counselors, helps customers with referrals and applications to other agencies. "People come here in need of food, but that's not their only need," she noted.
Despite the program's efficiency, demand for food assistance has only increased.
"These programs, though we do a service, are not an adequate solution," said Wohl, who will retire at the end of 2012. "Hunger has increased during the time emergency food has expanded. We subsidize inadequate wages."
In Pennsylvania, recent cuts in state funding have made the work of the food bank at St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Broomall even more difficult.
As the food bank's newsletter explained, "With an estimated 12,000 children under the age of 18 living in poverty in Delaware County alone, elected officials in Harrisburg have decided that taking food from needy children statewide is necessary to meet budget constraints."
Maria Kollar, food bank director, told a local reporter for the online Marple Newtown Patch that St. Mark's food bank receives about 4 percent of the allocated funding given to the Delco Interfaith Food Assistance Network, a group of 12 churches and synagogues in Delaware County, which St. Mark's then uses for food purchases.
At least 64 hungry families come to the church's food bank for food. "People don't realize this, but poverty exists right in their back door," she said. "I don't think people are aware of how bad the need is."
Stop wasting produce
The Society of St. Andrew, a United Methodist-related food-gleaning program, knows deliveries of fresh produce can help food pantries and other feeding programs alleviate hunger.
Too much produce is discarded, as the society makes clear on its website, where a running meter marks the pounds of food wasted in the United States since the start of 2012. According to the U.S. Agriculture Department, the waste accounts for 27 percent of all food produced annually.
Ana Zele, 18, a member of First United Methodist of Bradenton, Fla., repackages cucumbers that have been gleaned and will be distributed to local food programs in Tampa by the Society of St. Andrew. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.
A 1995 USDA study measured 96 billion pounds of waste in the food delivered to restaurants, supermarkets and homes. "What they couldn't even measure was the amount of waste that happens prior to that," said the Rev. Mike Hickcox, a United Methodist pastor who serves as the society's communications director.
In Riner, Va., for example, the society expects to collect 8,000 pounds of gleaned turnips this year. But farmers in the area estimate that 60 percent of their crops, for various reasons, are never shipped anywhere. "That's an awful lot of available food," he pointed out. "There is no shortage of feeding agencies ready to take nutritious food and feed it to people."
The Society of St. Andrew collects 25 million to 30 million pounds of fresh food a year, but it needs help to scale up those efforts, Hickcox said.
In many United Methodist annual conferences, United Methodist Men have designated a hunger-relief advocate who coordinates gleaning efforts among local churches.
If no such connection is available, Hickcox encouraged church members to call the society at 800-333-4597 for advice on starting a gleaning operation. Congregations or individuals also can cultivate family and church gardens and give the produce to local food pantries.
Global demand up, funding down
The Rev. Ray Buchanan, a United Methodist pastor and the founder of Stop Hunger Now, continues to see an increased demand for emergency food.
Many United Methodists have participated in packaging events for the dehydrated nutritious meals shipped by Stop Hunger Now for use at times of crisis or in school feeding programs across the world.
The organization's method for fighting hunger has become so popular that the Stop Hunger Now infrastructure recently expanded to nearly 60 full-time and 40 part-time staff to handle the demands, with 17 packaging offices across the United States, along with international offices in South Africa and Malaysia.
Every church, school or corporation that participates in a meal-packaging event wants to do it again, he said, and the organization gets requests to coordinate events in new areas nearly every week.
But along with an increase in demand this year has come a drop in financial donations to organizations providing those services, Buchanan noted. Of the five or six national meal-packaging organizations similar to Stop Hunger Now, he said, two closed this year, due both to leadership issues and lack of funding.
"The resources are just not there to do what needs to be done," he explained. "Everybody seems to be moving at half speed because they just don't have the income streams coming in."
At Stop Hunger Now, the current budget is 25 percent to 35 percent below expectations. "We're still doing really well, but our funding isn't anything like what we've projected this year," Buchanan said. "The interest is there; it's just getting the funding."
Even with less money, Stop Hunger Now expects to ship about 37 million packaged meals in 2013, up from more than 25 million this year. That is the equivalent of filling a 40-foot shipping container every three days.
"We cannot package meals fast enough to meet the needs," he said. 'We're not supplying even a quarter of the requests we get."
To see all the year-end coverage, visit umc.org/yearend.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or [email protected].