Testimony of Joel Berg to NYC Council, March 25, 2019

Testimony of Mr. Joel Berg
Chief Executive Officer, Hunger Free America
For Budget Hearing on the Human Resources Administration
Before the New York City Council Committee on General Welfare
March 25, 2019

I am Joel Berg, Chief Executive Officer of Hunger Free America, a nationwide direct service and advocacy organization based in New York City, which includes our Hunger Free NYC efforts focused locally. I thank Chair Levin for holding this vital hearing.

Background on Still Sky-High Food Insecurity in New York City and New York State

Hunger Free America’s 2018 report on hunger in New York City and State, based on our analysis of federal food insecurity data, found:

  • In New York City, the number of people living in food insecure households – unable to afford an adequate supply of food – decreased by 22 percent during the past six years, declining from 1.4 million people in 2012-2014 to 1.09 million in 2015-2017. However, the number is still 22 percent higher than the level of 0.892 million in 2005-2007, before the recession, and one in eight city residents still struggled against hunger. We must not accept mass deprivation in the wealthiest nation in world history as any sort of “new normal.” Hunger is unacceptable in any society, but it’s particularly outrageous in a nation as wealthy as the United States and in a city as wealthy as New York.

  • In 2015-17, 12.8 percent of the city’s population suffered from food insecurity, including 18 percent of all children, 8.9 percent of all employed adults, and 10.9 percent of all seniors.

  • The Bronx remains New York City’s hungriest borough in every category, with more than one in four Bronx residents (26 percent) experiencing food insecurity. This includes more than 37 percent of all children, nearly 17 percent of working adults, and almost 24 percent of seniors.

  • While food insecurity among working adults declined, most likely due to minimum wage increases, the area is still facing a “working hungry epidemic.” The number of adults working but still struggling against hunger in 2015-2017, was 351,912 in New York City, 666,852 in New York State, and 692,937 in the New York Metropolitan region.

If the city and the nation enter a recession in 2019 – which I believe is likely – food insecurity will skyrocket, and the budgetary needs of low-income New Yorkers will be far greater.

New York City Budget Request

1. The budget should ensure that NYC DOE aggressively and universally implements the new law state requiring that all high-needs schools in the state serve breakfast in the classroom.

Last year, when DOE School Food briefed us on the progress of in-classroom breakfast roll-out, we were concerned that they were giving so many schools and classes exemptions from in-classroom breakfasts that they were not meeting Mayor Bill de Blasio’s commitment to ensure breakfast in the classroom for all elementary school kids and to start rolling it out in middle schools.

A new report by the Food Research and Action Center, “School Breakfast: Making it Work in Large School Districts, 2017–2018 School Year,” confirms our concerns.

According to the report, in the 2017-2018 school year, even though all breakfasts are federally-funded, only 44.6 percent of NYC DOE kids who received school lunches also got school breakfasts, the same low ratio as in the 2016-2017 school year. NYC is in 68th place out of 76 large school districts in terms of breakfast participation. It’s bad enough when we lose to Boston or Philadelphia in sports; it’s truly unforgivable when we lose to them in feeding our hungry children.

Now that DOE has new leadership and now that state law mandates in-classroom breakfasts in high-needs schools, we are hopeful that significant progress on breakfast can be achieved rapidly in New York City.

2. The budget should ensure that NYC DOE serves school lunches at appropriate lunch hours.

City Limits recently reported: “Throughout the city, public schools stretch the concept of ‘lunch,’ sending students to the cafeteria as early as 9 a.m. The extremely early lunches trouble staff, parents and advocates and seem to disproportionately occur at schools in low-income communities.”

When lunch hours are so off, students are far less likely to eat a healthy breakfast.

3. The City should fund work to implement a city-level H.O.P.E. pilot project, as detailed in our February 14, 2019 hunger hearing testimony, to make it easier for low-income families to obtain and use benefits and manage their finances digitally to simplify their lives and boost their long-term self-sufficiency.

Seed funding for such an effort should be provided by the city government and key nonprofit partners, such as Hunger Free America.

4. The City should increase funding to nonprofits, including Hunger Free America, for SNAP, WIC, and summer meals outreach as well as other vital anti-hunger and anti-poverty tasks.

Such SNAP outreach money is matched by the federal government. Funding should be prioritized for efforts that aid ABAWDS, older New Yorkers, immigrants, working families, and post-secondary students.

5. The City should amply fund the Emergency Food Assistance Program.

6. The Mayor and Council should fund a pilot project to pay for meals for parents at summer meals sites at which the federal government pays for meals for children.