On June 25th, I got on the 5 Train and headed up to the La Iglesia Cristiana Shekinah block party at 3rd Avenue and 149th Street in the South Bronx. But I wasn’t going for the festivities.
As an intern and full-time volunteer with the New York City Coalition Against Hunger (NYCCAH), I was helping to launch the organization’s new SNAP (Food Stamp) benefits pre-screening pilot project. As a part of the United We Serve initiative, NYCCAH is moving beyond emergency food commodity distribution and taking steps to help families obtain federal nutrition assistance and redefine the way in which volunteers fight hunger in the community. The block party was square one.
When I arrived at the block party, women with shopping carts and families were lined up outside the church waiting to attend the day’s festivities. Maria, the event’s coordinator, greeted me graciously and introduced me to their Pastor. I set up my SNAP benefits pre-screening table. Across from me was Cornell University’s Community Nutrition program where they were demonstrating how much sugar was in various beverage products; nearby there was a woman administering HIV tests. People slowly trickled in as the Pastor commenced her speech detailing the day’s events. Ms. Estrada translated as the Pastor gave her speech.
When the speech ended, the fifty or so people block party attendees split off to the different tables. The first person to approach me for screening was a man whose situation entitled him to emergency food stamps. He had no source of income and cleaned a residential building full time in order to live in the basement for free. I could tell that everyone I screened that day would be eligible for benefits, if not eligible for the maximum amount.
I screened eight people in three hours, each with a harrowing story of serious deprivation that left their nutrition by the wayside. One woman I spoke with tried to apply for food stamps at her local food stamps office, but was turned away. Her husband, a day laborer, is picked up by a different employer every day and is sometimes unable to get work. Those weeks – when they must stretch her husband’s measly $200 a week earnings to feed four mouths and rent –are bad, she told me. The food stamps office told her that she could not receive food stamps unless she was able to produce a letter from her husband’s employer. Her case is an egregious situation that demonstrates the exemplarily need for non-profit and volunteer involvement in helping those “lost in the system.” The NYCCAH is now writing a letter on behalf of this woman to explain her situation in the hopes that she will be able to feed her two young children.
As I listened to the stories of those eight people, I knew that they were not alone and that there were hundreds of others in the neighborhood who were in need of and eligible for food stamp benefits. I wanted to stay and do pre-screenings all day.
Though I have volunteered with a number of organizations in New York City and Philadelphia, such as the Fresh Air Fund, Grand Street Settlement and St. Francis Xavier Soup Kitchen, my work pre-screening individuals for SNAP benefits and advocating for the most dire cases has been the most rewarding and efficacious. My time at the block party also showed me just how important organizations like La Iglesia Cristiana Shekinah are. In these challenging times, they build social capital and care for those around them; they are absolutely indispensable.
A few days later, Maria called the NYCCAH to thank me for attending the block party and pre-screening community members. She said that it was a “blessing” that I came! I can’t wait for my next chance to pre-screen.
To learn more about the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and the work that Molly is doing, visit http://www.nyccah.org/ or take steps to tackle hunger in your community by searching keyword: “hunger” “food bank” or “food drive.”