BANK ON IT: Food Bank For New York City's Blog
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By Zanita Johnson
January is Poverty in America Awareness Month and it is more than just a month-long acknowledgement for me. It is what drives me to work at Food Bank For New York City, and what has always motivated me to do more than lament the crisis from the sidelines. Before coming to Food Bank last month, I spent five years working at one of our member charities, Metro World Child (MWC), where I sourced, developed and maintained their mobile pantry and snack distributions for more than 20,000 children throughout the five boroughs.
While at MWC it was personally important for me to have a very direct impact on the lives of the people we served. Volunteering allowed me to foster relationships with approximately 125 children and their families through MWC's mentorship program and other initiatives.
It was this work that created in me an "I get to" mentality. Whether sitting in court during neglect hearings on behalf of parents who were doing everything in their power to ensure that their kids had food and clothes, or teaching families how to make healthy eating choices when nutritious items were often beyond their budget, I fell in love with these children and their families. They adopted me as auntie or godmother, and in some cases, as the stand-in mother at plays, basketball and football games, and parent/teacher conferences. Those experiences made me realize that I don't just do this work, "I get to" do this work. It's an honor that I cherish.
The past five years laid the foundation for a life dedicated to doing whatever I can to make a difference for vulnerable people in my community. Becoming a Food Banker as Manager of Member Services is the best way I can think of to further the fight against hunger in our city. I can now help serve the network to which I once belonged. Being a Food Banker allows me the platform to make recommendations and create protocols that benefit the specific needs of the food pantries and soup kitchens in our network, while creating a more efficient and empowering environment for the guests who visit our charities.
My passion and experience is what brought me to Food Bank For New York City, and the children that I have the privilege of continuing to volunteer with today are what motivate me for a lifetime of service to this cause.
Zanita Johnson is Manager of Member Services at Food Bank For New York City.
By Marlo Dublin
Quality nutrition education knows no bounds, so as a nutritionist it felt like second nature for me to start a kosher Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables (JSY) workshop series earlier this year at Young Israel of Forest Hills Senior League, a vibrant Jewish senior center in the heart of Queens.
Providing kosher nutrition education is very similar to any nutrition workshop I've conducted. The participants may speak different languages--Russian, Farsi, Polish, Yiddish and German--but they have a basic grasp of English, and are full of questions and enthusiasm. They ask about diet, love trying recipe samples, and often stay after the session ends to continue the conversation.
One important difference, however, is that kosher regulations shape the workshops' recipe preparations. A unique equipment kit is designated for use at a kosher site (and all of its metal utensils are typically blessed in a mikvah, or ritual pool, before first use). Recipe ingredients must carry specific kosher label markings, and recipes prepared should contain only basic fruit and/or vegetable ingredients since kosher law prohibits combining dairy and meat ingredients. It has been eye-opening to see that these rules do not affect the success of a workshop; they simply inform where and how I shop for it.
My experience teaching kosher nutrition has also taught me that every population, no matter their religion or perspective on life, can benefit from a workshop environment. When the right tone is set, a nutrition workshop becomes a think tank where assumptions and myths about health are challenged. An open-minded conversation takes place, and I lead the experience as much as the group does. Their questions and insight inform our activities and conclusions, and most leave changed--by what they learned and by the views of others. My group's positive reaction to very simple fruit or vegetable-based recipes, such as Cranberry Fruit Salad, Succotash Salad, and Greens and Grapes Salad has been rewarding to see. Similarly, participants seem to appreciate attending a session devoted to a health topic that they might not ordinarily think about during the course of a week.
Susan Rabinowicz, director of Young Israel of Forest Hills Senior League, has told me several times since the workshop series started that she is thrilled to see her clients' excitement about JSY. She is thankful for the program's positive impact, and is already eager to book future workshops for 2015. It is my hope that this momentum leads to JSY workshops at other kosher agencies throughout the city.
Marlo Dublin is a Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetable Nutritionist at Food Bank For New York City.
By Triada Stampas
"No New Yorker should go hungry: access to adequate, nutritious food is a fundamental human right."
So says the introduction to Food Bank For New York City's anti-hunger policy platform, developed in partnership and consultation with the charities that make up the majority of our membership, and released in part last year as a transition plan for our city's new Administration. As emergency food providers, we work from a core belief that none of our neighbors should be without the basic needs for their survival.
Today is International Human Rights Day, a day designated to bring the world's attention to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948. Article 25 states, in part:
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food...
Hunger in our city is not an issue of food scarcity; our country produces more than enough food for all of us. As I have heard it said, "The presence of hunger is an absence of justice."
Unfortunately, recent actions in Washington have tipped the scale in the wrong direction. Since food stamp (SNAP) benefits were cut in November 2013, our city alone has lost more than 56 million meals.
In a city where 1.4 million New Yorkers rely on emergency food, and food-insecure residents were already facing a meal gap of 250 million meals, the distance we have yet to travel to secure the fundamental right to adequate food can be daunting. But every New Yorker has a role to play: with our voices, to advocate for needed resources and raise awareness about hunger; with our time and talent, to help the local charities on the front lines; and with our resources, to provide food and needed services to our neighbors in need.
Acting together, we can realize the right to food not just on International Human Rights Day, but every day.
Triada Stampas is Vice President for Research & Public Affairs at Food Bank For New York City.
Indulge your sweet tooth with this seasonal favorite from our Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables team that's chock-full of health benefits. Pumpkin is rich in Vitamin A, fiber, iron and calcium. What could be better than a treat that's good and good for you?
- 1 cup canned pumpkin
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1/2 cup applesauce
- 2 eggs
- 1 1/2 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup raisins
- Preheat oven to 350ºF.
- In a large bowl, stir together pumpkin, sugar, oil, applesauce and eggs.
- In a separate bowl, combine remaining ingredients, except raisins.
- Add flour mixture to large bowl. Stir until moist. Stir in raisins.
- Pour batter into a greased loaf pan.
- Bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes.
Makes 8 servings.
By Amariante Mohedano
It's hard to believe that a financial hub like New York City is home to so many underserved people who work hard, yet struggle to get enough to eat. There is an entire population of New Yorkers who hold down 9-to-5 jobs, but still live paycheck to paycheck, having to choose between paying rent or buying food for their families. Food Bank For New York City is here for them, and I'm proud to be one of the benefits specialists at Food Bank's Call Center who help our neighbors access critical benefits that make a huge difference in their lives.
At the Call Center we receive approximately 65 calls a day, and it is up to us to provide these callers not only with basic information, but also with an empathetic ear. Sometimes people just want someone to listen.
For the majority of our calls, we offer information and assistance accessing emergency food. But we know that if people are calling us to find out where to get food, odds are they need other services as well. So we use our various resources to do more than provide people with a list of food pantries. We pre-screen callers to see if they qualify for SNAP (also known as food stamps), and let them know how to take advantage of Food Bank's free tax preparation services. We also offer referrals to housing resources, the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP), legal services and more.
When seniors call, especially if they tell us that they live alone, we like to refer them to Meals on Wheels to ensure that they can get food delivered right to their door, and also to Congregate Meals if they want to have meals with other seniors at a senior center, like the one at our Community Kitchen and Pantry in Harlem, or another location.
As benefits specialists, we know that assistance is not one size fits all. But we try our best to tailor fit services to all of our callers. It is a great feeling to know that at the end of each call we have helped fellow New Yorkers put food on the table and find a variety of resources that can help alleviate their struggle.
Amariante Mohedano is a Benefits Specialist at Food Bank For New York City.
By Laine Rolong
When it comes to spending, low-income families often have to make hard decisions. While they may want to buy their child a new pair of shoes for school, they need to buy food and pay the rent. Taking care of basic family necessities--food, housing, clothing, healthcare--is the priority, but the truth is many struggling New Yorkers aren't always able to do it. This is the reality for many of the families that Food Bank For New York City serves, which is why we work so diligently to help our neighbors in need boost their financial situation by helping them access SNAP, offering free tax assistance and providing financial counseling. In fact, a big part of my work here at Food Bank is coaching clients on how to build financial literacy, manage their money, and achieve greater financial stability.
As we near the end of financial planning week, here are six tips that I always share with clients to promote good fiscal habits and reduce financial insecurity:
- Define your financial goal. What do you want? To save money, pay off debt, build credit? It is important to define your goal first, whatever it may be; then you can define the steps to achieve it.
- Assess your financial situation by creating a budget. To know where you want to be, you need to know where you stand. Creating a budget allows a clear view of your financial status. People often know how much money is coming in, but not how it's being spent. Creating a budget for the month helps you monitor your spending down to the last penny and creates an opportunity to review where you are overspending.
- Apply for SNAP benefits. The average SNAP (food stamps) benefit for a household of one is more than $100 month, and for a household of three it's more than $400 a month. That is approximately $1,200 to $4,800 that won't need to come directly out of your pocket--in essence, a savings to you. Food is the second highest expense in a typical household budget after rent, so it makes sense to enroll in SNAP, if eligible, and allocate the savings elsewhere, for instance debt payment.
- Choose banking instead of check cashing. The cost to cash a $1,000 check at a check-cashing service may be a $5 processing fee plus another 1 percent fee. This means that each year you will give away $180 of your hard-earned money. Banking is a better and safer option. The key is to find the right institution that works for you.
- Check your credit report. It's free, it's your right and it's a good start to build or improve your credit score. The higher your credit score, the better rate you can get if you ever need a bank loan. Remember, prospective employers and landlords do credit checks as well. Click here to get a free credit report.
- Plan your taxes now while creating saving goals. Food Bank prepares taxes for free; the average cost of tax preparation in New York City is $250. Food Bank's tax professionals ensure that you get every Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to which you are entitled. Plan ahead for how you will use your tax return. But keep your financial goal in mind as you plan so that you make wiser decisions and increase your ability to meet your goal.
Laine Rolong is Food Bank For New York City's Financial Empowerment Manager.
By Stephanie Alvarado
As a Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables (JSY) nutritionist, I travel through the South Bronx to teach workshops and I've noticed urban gardens popping up all over. Many of the old abandoned lots that once lined the South Bronx are now being converted to beautiful green lush gardens. They're showing up on rooftops too. Access to fresh, affordable produce is one of the biggest issues in areas like the Bronx and urban gardening is a perfect solution.
Other than seeing these small gardens and driving past farms when I travel outside of the city, I have never experienced life on an actual farm or observed one close up. That all changed a few weeks ago when the JSY team took a trip upstate to Stoneledge Farm in South Cairo, New York. Just Food, an organization that supports community-led efforts to increase access to locally-grown food in underserved New York City neighborhoods, hosted the trip so that clients and staff from four Food Bank For New York City member food pantries in the South Bronx could see where the produce they receive comes from.
In my work, I inform clients on how to use unfamiliar produce through recipe demonstrations and interactive discussions. It was a privilege to share this experience with them. One of the farmers gave us a guided tour of the farm. We saw basil, summer squash, cabbage and cilantro. We even picked beautiful, colorful flowers to take home.
While it is the norm for me to be surrounded by buildings and noise, spending time on the farm made me feel different in my soul. Just breathing the clean air and absorbing the breathtaking landscape was an awesome experience that I truly appreciated. As I pulled a bunch of cilantro from the soil, one of the seniors in the group walked over to me and said, "No, you have to get it from the bottom and really pull those roots out. If not, they won't last too long." In that moment I was reminded of my grandmother, who did the same thing for years in her own garden: pulling cilantro from the soil and using it to season her delicious red kidney beans. No "adobo" or "sazon" for my abuela!
It was a wonderful day all around. Getting to experience a farm firsthand has further instilled in me the desire to educate low-income New Yorkers about the importance of eating local produce and of supporting urban farms in the Bronx.
Stephanie Alvarado is a Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables Nutritionist at Food Bank For New York City.
By Lisa Hines-Johnson
Months ago, I agreed to co-chair Feeding America's conference for operations professionals scheduled for late summer in St. Louis. In a nutshell it meant that I committed approximately six months of focus on planning and collaboration to benefit my sister food banks all over the country. I was grateful and honored to serve our shared mission in this way. I admit to being a lover of learning so it was truly a joy to look at the national network of colleagues and plan a shared agenda for us. When I originally wrote out my list of places to see and things to do in St. Louis, I drafted the typical list: Check out the Arch, sample some delicious soul food from Sweetie Pies, tour St. Louis' Food Bank (of course) and join my colleagues at a baseball game. I didn't expect it to rival our Yankees, but hey I was traveling without my little ones so it was already SUPER FUN. Everything was planned...and then we received the terrible news from Ferguson.
From the moment I heard of yet another senseless loss of a young person, I had a huge weight on my soul. As food bankers, our work deals with a social issue--ENDING hunger--which is a basic human right. But so is feeling safe. As a mother of three, including one son, I couldn't shake the feeling of anger and sadness. It went to bed with me every night and woke me up even on the first day of the conference. I didn't expect to feel so much gratitude for the Executive Director of the St. Louis Area Food Bank for acknowledging what was happening just 20 minutes away. He reminded us that as food banks we have a duty to support communities that are suffering and in need. My spirit was lifted a bit after that as well as sharing with conference attendees my own feelings that first morning of the conference. It was a great lesson that even at a gathering of operations, get-it-done types, sometimes the first order of business is to allow yourself to simply feel what you're feeling whether good or bad. It doesn't make you "off task"...I think it makes you IN HUMANITY.
It was my humanness, my mommyness that compelled me to use my last day in St. Louis to side step the visit to my sister food bank to instead, travel to Ferguson. I needed to go there. I called a cab driver I'd met days earlier and asked if he'd take me to the place where a young man lost his life. The media was everywhere. As I made my way down the street, I talked to some of the residents and two police officers to get a sense of how people were feeling. I also visited the spot where Michael Brown was killed. It had been memorialized with flowers and candles. People had set up prayer stations, music was playing. The community was coming together in the wake of this devastating situation. Even though it was emotionally overwhelming, I'm so glad that I had the opportunity to witness it.
Everyone knows that I could not be more proud to be from the Bronx. As I reentered by cab headed home I was struck by one thought. The people of Ferguson want the same thing as the New Yorkers we serve: to be treated with dignity. When people think about a food bank, they think about food alone. But it takes so much more to thrive within a given life. It's not just about the food. It's about dignity. People want to feel respected. They want to feel recognized. The people of Ferguson, the families on line at soup kitchens are the same as all of us. We can never forget that. In talking to folks there I understood that the tragedy underscores something they've always wanted: to be seen--and not through a prism of what others think they are, but for who they truly are: Moms, brothers, dads, sisters, regular people answering to the same name: Human beings.
Lisa Hines-Johnson is Chief Operating Officer at Food Bank For New York City.
By Shanon Morris
It's growing season again, which means that carts full of fruits and vegetables are on every other corner and farmers markets are filled with city folks looking to buy local. As Associate Director of Community Nutrition, I work on nutrition programming for Food Bank's network, but also provide nutrition education to the Harlem residents at our Community Kitchen and Food Pantry. One of my favorite activities is going on farmers market walks with our clients. We gather at the Community Kitchen at 116th Street and walk to 125th Street. During that time we chat about life and I get the chance to stay connected with the community in which I live and serve.
Once at the market, we watch a cooking demonstration by Stellar Farmers Market nutritionists, who use Food Bank's Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables recipes to show people how to turn local produce into tasty and healthy dishes. As the cooking demo ends, the moment our clients have been waiting for arrives: I give out Health Bucks to everyone who attended. Health Bucks are $2 vouchers provided by the Department of Health to help increase access to local produce. They can be used at all New York City farmers markets. With Health Bucks in hand, our clients and I walk around the market looking at the day's offerings, and they buy fresh fruits and vegetables to take home. Afterward, we walk back to the Community Kitchen together.
I've been leading farmers market tours for three years and have been joined by many of the same clients on every walk. They start asking me about it well before growing season arrives. Clearly, it's become a tradition. I hope that our talks, the cooking demonstrations, and the produce they're able to buy have helped influence healthy behavior changes in their lives. Just as we strive to build healthy relationships with people, it's important to also strive for healthy relationships with food!
To find a farmers market in New York City, visit www.nyc.gov/health/farmersmarkets.
Shanon Morris, RD, CDN is Associate Director of Community Nutrition at Food Bank For New York City.
by Alane Celeste-Villalvir
Earlier this month, Food Bank brought its Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables (JSY) 11-month cooking demonstration series to BOOM!Health's Harm Reduction Center. I am always a tad nervous about how new offerings will be received by our clients. JSY nutritionist Stephanie Alvarado arrived 15 minutes early to meet me and get situated for the first demo. Since there was no sign-up for the event, she asked how and when we would be announcing it to the clients. I told her that we could make an announcement, but that she should just set up in the café across from our kitchen and see how many people organically flock to her out of curiosity. Within minutes, Stephanie had a room full of clients asking her questions and actively engaged in the subject at hand. On that hot summer day, the demo was about healthy beverages and the crowd absolutely loved it!
At the end of the class, Stephanie and I discussed the turnout. We couldn't have been happier. The group loved it. These kinds of activities are incredibly powerful for our clients because they're educational AND therapeutic. People walk away with useful and practical information and, because the classes are engaging and entertaining, clients get an escape from the stress and pressures of the day to day. Our clients are predominantly homeless and unstably-housed people battling substance abuse in the Mott Haven area of the South Bronx. We also serve a growing immigrant population, people living with chronic illnesses such as Hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS, people who are unemployed, ex-offenders, and LGBTQ individuals--in Mott Haven and the community at large.
As we planned for the next class--this time on increasing fiber intake--I couldn't help but still be amazed that clients were so eager to engage in conversations about healthy eating! I am so happy that we pursued this program. Not only do I hope to implement it at our other food and nutrition program sites, I'm also going to take advantage of all the programs and services Food Bank For New York City has to offer. Thank you Food Bank!
Alane Celeste-Villalvir is Director of Food and Nutrition Services at BOOM!Health, a Food Bank For New York City member charity.