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BANK ON IT: Food Bank For New York City's Blog

How My Mother and I Got By, on Food Stamps

By Lisa Hines-Johnson

Today, Mother’s Day, is the third day of the Food Bank For New York City’s Food Stamp Challenge – a call to supporters to spend just one week experiencing what it is like to have to rely on a food stamp budget of $1.48 per meal.

As I reflect on the challenge and how powerful it will be for people who participate, it has struck me how fitting it is to have this experience on one of the most important days celebrating mothers – as the face of poverty is overwhelmingly that of a woman and her children. I am also reminded of my own mother and our experience, as a single mother and her only child, having to rely on food stamps.

It was the early 1980s when my mother lost her job after fourteen years of dedicated service to her company. I was young, yet old enough to know that something was different. My mother still got out of the bed we shared in our one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx well before the sun came up, but she no longer put on her work clothes or those high-heeled shoes that I slipped on while playing dress-up. My mom was now home when I arrived from school. We spent more time together. That was good. Nothing seemed wrong….at least for a little while. I found out years later that my mother was able to provide for us for some time with the severance package her company had given her. Once that money was spent, things changed.

I asked my mother how she felt during this time of transition from a life of modest comfort to trying to stretch a dollar until even it begged for mercy. She shared that she did what she had to at a time when her options were limited. It was hard. She talked about the embarrassment that quickly turned to anger when she noticed disapproving stares as she paid with her food stamps. She wanted to yell out “I’ve worked. I didn’t plan for this!” She felt defeated yet thankful for the neighborhood grocer who was kind enough to allow us to get food that we needed and pay him later. And worried about the how we’d get through the next week with the stamps – which were actually stamps back then – and other support running low.

I remember when I first noticed that our food supply was dwindling which, of course, always happened towards the end of the month. Those meals always consisted of scrambled or fried eggs, French fries and a canned vegetable, usually beets. I remember sharing in my own little girl version of my mother’s shame, anger and sadness that resulted in an inescapable resilience.

I also remember that, despite her situation, my mother always tried to do things that would improve our reality even if only temporarily. From odd jobs in local shops, to babysitting for children in the neighborhood, to taking courses to become a dog groomer and grooming the same 3 dogs every month, my mother tried with everything she had to ensure that I still had gifts to open at Christmas, parties to celebrate my birthday and a new outfit to wear on picture day at school.

As a mother of three, my heart aches for what I can now fully comprehend was my mother’s struggle during this period in our lives. As someone who lived the Food Stamp Challenge and never thought she’d have to, my mother told me how important she feels it is for people who participate in this experience to talk about it so that others might know how urgently the people who rely on food stamps need this support to get through the next month, the next meal. So they might join the larger discussion around poverty and what needs to be done to truly move people back into the lives they had or the ones they dream of having.

Food Bank in Huffington Post: Don’t Take Food from Most Vulnerable

by Lucy Cabrera

The following editorial by Food Bank President and CEO Lucy Cabrera was originally published in the Huffington Post, July 27, 2011.

As the debate over budget cuts heat up in Washington, let's hope cooler heads prevail when it comes to supporting something as basic as food assistance for those in need. Taking food away from those who are struggling the most should not be considered a budget fix. Without proper access to food, the system will begin to break down.

Cuts currently under debate by Congress threaten to drastically reduce vital food support for those already enduring the greatest brunt of the economic downturn. Proposed cuts to The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and SNAP, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps, would be devastating to those who are already struggling to just get by.

Today, key economic indicators show that the recovery is slowing and food costs are increasing. As a country, how can we talk about strengthening our ability to compete in the future by making decisions at the expense of the weakest and most vulnerable among us? If the people in need whom we serve cannot be helped, we are putting more at risk than our economic recovery...

Read the full editorial on the Huffington Post.

One Billion Pounds of Need

By Dr. Lucy Cabrera

Dear Friends,

When the Food Bank For New York City’s Bronx warehouse and distribution center first opened in 1983, the Food Bank distributed 500,000 pounds of food in its inaugural year. This year, 27 years later, 74 million pounds of food moved through our 90,000-square-foot warehouse — the heart and soul of our organization. The juxtapostion between then and now is astounding. In 1983, organizers of soup kitchens and food pantries would carry bags of food from our then 30,0000-square-foot warehouse back to the communities they served; we had a network of 93 programs. Today, we’re delivering 350,000 pounds of food a day to our network of approximately 1,000 community-based programs throughout the five boroughs.

In 2011, our food distribution efforts have reached a milestone that deserves a great amount of attention: the Food Bank has now distributed one billion pound of food to our neighbors in need. ONE BILLION POUNDS OF FOOD!!

If we learn anything from this number, we learn that the need for support continues to grow. It’s simply not enough to collect and distribute food. The key is to go after the root causes of hunger. At the Food Bank, we are bullish on our ability to fuel programs that address the underlying problems that lead to hunger. We focus not only on food distribution, but income support and nutrition education as well.

We have also learned that the face of hunger might not look the way you expect. I have been with the Food Bank for more than 23 years and in this, my retirement year, I have been very reflective on those individuals and families we serve and the postive change we have been able to effect on their lives.

I think of Rosalind, a single-mother that was recently featured in Serving & Empowering New York, our 2011 video. Rosalind was a self-reliant music teacher before the recession stripped her of her career and the ability to provide for herself and her son. She relies on our income support programs to help pay her rent. I cherish the story of a visitor to our food pantry in West Harlem who didn’t know how to cook a zucchini until we taught her. She relies on us. I am warmed by stories of school children, some whom used to think a pepper was a pear and grew in bodegas. Now they understand the concept of farms, and healthful foods, thanks to our CookShop nutrition education program — we are the largest provider of nutrition education to NYC public schools for children and their families.

Through my reflections I have learned that we can all make a difference in the lives of so many. I urge you, stay committed and keep your resolve for this cause, you can make a difference no matter how big or how small, and we will continue to fight hunger together, one billion pounds at a time.

Letter from Lucy: Spring 2010

Dear Friends,

President Obama’s commitment to end child hunger by 2015 comes at a critical time. Right now, New York City’s food assistance organizations are struggling to meet the increased needs of a city devastated by unemployment, lost savings and the high cost of living, and many families with children have been hard hit by the recession.

Of course, no matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow, and I hope that in time we will begin to see signs of relief after such a long and brutal economic storm. For now, however, there is still a real and immediate need that must be met. The troubled economy has tried everyone’s resilience — from the city’s poorest, who have struggled with adversity and found themselves fighting even harder to survive, to the newly unemployed, who have turned to food stamps and food pantries for the first time.

I have worked with the Food Bank for more than 20 years to make sure that each of those individuals finds help when he or she needs it. Together, the Food Bank, our network and our supporters like you have worked hard to keep New Yorkers from falling through the cracks — New Yorkers like Alberta, a mother and retiree who came to St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in the Bronx for emergency food and stayed to become a member of a community that supports and looks out for her. Or the many working families and individuals who turned to the Food Bank’s Tax Assistance Program this year — a simple initiative that brings millions of dollars in federal tax refunds into our city.

Your support and dedication help keep programs like these fully funded. The Food Bank is there for New Yorkers in need, and I am grateful to you for standing beside us.


Lucy Cabrera, Ph.D., CAE
President and CEO

What My Mother Did For Me: From Our CEO

Dear Friends,

One of the drivers that has kept me going throughout my life and career has been the fear of being poor. I know what that feels like first-hand from my childhood. And having accomplished what I have as the Food Bank’s President and CEO for the past 23 years, I always remember that I owe everything to two people: my mother and father.

Two mothers with their children in line at a Food Bank network food pantry.
Even having grown up in a family that definitely counted among our city’s working poor, I still find it difficult to imagine what struggling to keep food on the table for your children really feels like.

With Mother’s Day just days away, I always take some time aside to think about everything my mother, who combined her garment factory income with my father’s earnings as a cook’s helper, did to support my sisters and me. While I take great pride in the fact that my work at the Food Bank helps reach families like my own, it saddens me to know that women and children are two of the most at-risk groups in our city.

In fact, two-thirds of the people who visit food pantries in our city are women, and close to half of all households with children experience difficulty affording food. Knowing how many low-income families already find themselves on lines at soup kitchens and food pantries, it is all the more shocking to know that almost one out of every five women in our city would not be able to afford needed food immediately after losing their household income.

I never could have become what I am today without the love and support my mom gave me — not to mention those home cooked meals! My mother is no longer here for me to thank in person, but I like to think that my work honors her and all of the other mothers in New York City who work hard to provide for their families.



Lucy Cabrera
President and CEO

If you can, we hope that you will consider making a donation to support all of the women who struggle to afford food in our city. A great way to do this right now is to make a gift in honor of your mother — sending her one of our new Mother’s Day eCards. Thank you!

Letter From Lucy: A Year in Recession

Dear Friends, The past year presented many challenges for the Food Bank For New York City. Unemployment reached a 26-year high. And 93 percent of our member soup kitchens and food pantries saw an increase in first-time visitors, as reported in NYC Hunger Experience 2009.

Responding to increased need, the Food Bank focused on our core strengths — food procurement, warehousing and a citywide network of approximately 1,000 food assistance programs that help meet our neighbors’ immediate needs. Working toward long-term solutions, additional Food Bank efforts continue addressing issues including nutrition and health education, tax assistance, food stamps and public policy.

While the country’s response to the recession appears to have had a real impact on hunger, most of the government increases in support were designed as temporary measures — and will soon end.

Over 2009, the Food Bank brought hunger awareness into new arenas. Social marketing campaigns encouraged healthy eating and Food Stamp enrollment, while online efforts — the launch of Bank on It, the Food Bank’s blog; our Twitter presence; and a YouTube channel — spread the word to new online communities.

In the coming year, the Food Bank is committed to providing meals and services for New Yorkers who continue to struggle in difficult times, while strengthening the safety net for those in need. And we will continue to rely on supporters like you. Whether you donate, volunteer or spread the wordevery action helps keep our neighbors well fed. Thank you!


Lucy Cabrera, Ph.D., CAE
President and CEO

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