Serving Without Shame: Food Insecurity in the LGBTQ+ Community
This Pride month, we here at Food Bank For New York City are turning a critical eye to the pervasive issues of poverty and food insecurity in the LGBTQ+ community....Read More
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Food Insecurity |This Pride month, we here at Food Bank For New York City are turning a critical eye to the pervasive issues of poverty and food insecurity in the LGBTQ+ community. Though Pride is certainly a time for celebration, it’s also a time for acknowledging the work still needed to be done to achieve true equity for the LGBTQ+ community. Part of that work necessitates addressing the immense hunger needs of LGBTQ+ individuals. According to a 2020 report from the Williams Institute, 27% of LGBTQ+ folks across the United States are currently facing food insecurity. Even before the pandemic, one in five LGBTQ+ individuals were already living in poverty, a rate 76% higher than the national average. It’s no wonder then that LGBTQ+ people also participate in social safety net programs like SNAP (formerly food stamps) at much higher rates than their straight counterparts. Though many states (including New York) have implemented widespread non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ folks, the reality is that many non-straight people still experience rampant discrimination in the realms of housing, employment, education, and healthcare. Therefore, when we talk about food insecurity in the LGBTQ+ community, we must recognize how it intersects with other challenges that make it difficult for non-straight people to secure the resources they need to survive. We must also acknowledge that hunger and poverty disproportionately impact those most marginalized within the LGBTQ+ community itself, namely trans people, non-binary individuals, seniors, people of color, and those living with HIV. Even in communities with strong non-discrimination protections, these vulnerable groups still face higher rates of poverty than the general public, due in large part to certain stigmas they may face in society. SAGE (an NYC-based organization dedicated to serving the needs of older LGBTQ+ adults and a Food Bank member agency) recently released a study that illuminated these disparities, finding that one-third of LGBTQ+ seniors in New York City are living at or below 200% of the federal poverty line. The report also found that 52% of respondents were being forced to deny or hide their identities from their healthcare providers and that 67% of LGBTQ+ seniors in New York City feared neglect from long-term care specialists. To support our LGBTQ+ elders, we partner with SAGE to provide food for its meal program. In addition to our work with SAGE, we’re proud to partner with a wide range of other community-based organizations that tailor their programming to serve the unique needs of LGBTQ+ New Yorkers. One of these groups is GMHC, an organization founded in the early 1980s to uplift New Yorkers living with HIV. In addition to offering mental health services, housing assistance, and immigration support to its clients, GMHC has also long provided a safe space for folks living with HIV to gather and share food. As GMHC’s Director of Nutrition & Meals Josie Thiele explained to me, the GMHC Meals Program was a vital lifeline for New Yorkers living with HIV in the 1980s and 90s. At that time, folks who showed visible signs of the virus were often barred from eating in public spaces, so GMHC became one of the few spots where they could safely come together. The program provided nutritious free food, yes, but it also provided a place in which those living with HIV could simply exist without shame, stigma, or judgment. And though the Meals Program has evolved over time, Thiele says this shame-free approach to service is what has allowed the organization to better support and understand its diverse array of clients, many of whom identify along the LGBTQ+ spectrum. “When folks can feel comfortable expressing who they are, it makes it easier for them to access the services they need,” Thiele said. “Our clients know that when they walk through our doors, there’s no judgment. We work to make it a safe space for everyone. As staff, we always introduce ourselves with our pronouns so folks know they can express that as well. In general, we want to make people feel comfortable in a way that in many other places they might feel afraid or stigmatized.” By breaking through these stigmas, GMHC is able to establish trust with its clients, which allows it to engage folks with a wide range of services to meet their unique and varied needs. As Thiele told me, GMHC endeavors to serve its clients holistically by recognizing that food insecurity is hardly ever just about food. “For most of our clients, there’s a variety of things that are going to lead to food insecurity,” Thiele said. “So, we have food services, including our congregant meals, food pantry, and nutrition counseling with registered dieticians, but we also offer course development programs for clients looking to write a resume or learn new computer skills. We also have legal services to help folks navigate immigration and housing laws as well as mental health and substance abuse services.” “By focusing on all of these different things, we can help our clients achieve their goals and feel fully supported,” she continued. “Giving people food is great, but helping them to find stable housing or a stable job helps to minimize the food insecurity in general.” At the end of the day, the LGBTQ+ community is no monolith, and fighting back against hunger and poverty within it requires a nuanced, specific, and dynamic approach. It requires acknowledging that many people’s queer identities intersect with other identities that may further complicate their lived experiences, which means that a cisgender white gay man, for example, will likely have very different needs than those of an immigrant trans woman of color. Responding to these needs requires listening. It requires persistence. And it requires serving others without shaming them for being who they are. As Tyrone Hanley of the National Center for Lesbian Rights said in an interview with the Food Research & Action Center last year: “When people are already dealing with the vulnerability of being poor, and then on top of that adding worries about being discriminated against based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, that can prevent people from receiving the services they desperately need.” To learn more about how Food Bank serves the LGBTQ+ community all year long, click this link.
Food Insecurity |This Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we want to highlight the realities of food insecurity in the AAPI community. Though pop culture may have us believe that all Asian people are highly educated, wealthy, and high-achieving, the truth is that hunger and poverty don’t discriminate, and do in fact affect Pacific Islander and Asian communities all across the United States, including the ones we serve here in New York. According to the latest census estimates from 2019, there are over 1 million people who identify as either “Asian” or “Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander” in New York City. This accounts for approximately 14 percent of the city’s total population, signaling an immense and significant presence across the five boroughs. However, this presence isn’t monolithic, and is made up of dozens of different ethnic groups who may or may not have that much in common aside from checking “Asian” on the census. So, understanding what hunger looks like in the AAPI community is all about recognizing not only the diversity of the acronym itself, but the vast spectrum of need housed within it. As a recent report from the Food Research & Action Center points out, the AAPI community is both the fastest growing racial group in the United States and the one with the fastest growing (and widest!) wealth gap. This means that the AAPI community is the most economically divided racial group in the country. Per the FRAC report: “Compared to other racial groups, [AAPI] is small, so when it is included, it tends to be under sampled and erroneously treated as a homogeneous group. These missteps often lead to results that hide the high levels of inequalities and inequities between [AAPI] subgroups, and give a false impression that there are no or few [AAPI] individuals, families, and communities in need of SNAP and other social safety net programs.” In New York City, the need for these social safety net programs is at an all-time high. According to Robin Hood (NYC’s largest poverty-tracking organization), poverty amongst Asian New Yorkers is the fastest growing in the city and is 15-25 percent higher than the city average. As of this writing, over 245,000 Asian New Yorkers are living in poverty, which constitutes nearly 25 percent of the city’s entire Asian population. To combat these inequities, Food Bank partners with organizations across the five boroughs to help Asian Americans and new immigrants enroll in social safety net programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps). But, as Food Bank’s Network Resource Specialist Yuanjing “Jeff” Lin explained to me, enrollment isn’t always as easy as filing a simple form. “The AAPI community encompasses so many different cultures, languages, and origins, so language can be a major roadblock for people,” he said. “Though the city provides some translations for languages spoken by AAPI people [currently Chinese, Korean, and Bengali], there are still so many languages and dialects that are left out.” And even when these translations do exist, Lin says that they don’t always provide further clarity for people. Terms that appear on these forms (like, “household compensation,” for example) may be literally translatable, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily make sense in someone’s native tongue. Therefore, folks often have to have these forms explained to them regardless of the language they’re in. As Lin puts it: “A lot of my work is translating the translation to people, trying to break it down into a simple conversation that they can understand.” This work becomes even more difficult once the government sends back their official approval or rejection letters to the submitted SNAP forms. Why? Well, regardless of the form’s original language, these government letters almost always arrive in English. “Clients will bring me piles of paper and say, ‘Can you let me know if I need to take action?’ You keep receiving papers from the government, but you don’t know what to do with them. Some of my clients bring their children with them, so first we talk to the kids and make them understand in English, then they have to try their best to explain these really complex topics in their own language to their parents... we have to go through multiple layers of barriers.” And this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of roadblocks, complications, and hurdles non-English speaking AAPI folks may face when trying to access the benefits they need. To surmount these obstacles, Lin says it’s imperative to invest in community-based organizations that can provide personalized translations and resources to different ethnic groups within the AAPI community. One such organization is the Tzu Chi Foundation, a partner agency of ours that provides SNAP enrollment services to folks in Flushing, Chinatown, and Sunset Park. They also distribute culturally appropriate vegetarian meals and pantry goods on a recurring weekly basis. To learn more about how Tzu Chi brings specialized assistance to the Chinese communities they serve, check out the video below. Hunger isn’t something that discriminates by race. It affects all sorts of people, including those who identify as Asian and Pacific Islander. By obscuring this fact with harmful stereotypes and misinformation, we miss out on the opportunity to serve those who need us most. But if we invest in robust translation services at the government level and prioritize funding for community-based organizations that can tailor their programming to the unique needs of their people, we can begin to address the growing issue of food-insecurity in the AAPI community.
Food Insecurity |There exists in New York City a groundswell of green. It’s not located in Central or Prospect Park, nor is it located in the forests of The Bronx. This green lives in the nearly 100 acres of community gardens and farms planted across the five boroughs of the city. Rooted on rooftops and vacant lots, these greenspaces are vital sources of food, fellowship, and education for the communities they serve. They’re also in constant danger of being destroyed from gentrification, displacement, and development. In this blog post, we’re going to explore the history of urban agriculture in New York and talk about why it's so important to the fight against hunger in our city. We’ll also chat with The Campaign Against Hunger, a Food Bank member agency that currently operates two farms in Brooklyn. ''They were getting ready to take something away from our community, something too important to lose... I told them I was born poor, I live poor, and I’m going to die poor. I don’t beg. But these are for the community. I asked [the city] to help me.” Out of context, these words from a 1982 New York Times interview could be about anything: affordable housing, local grocery stores, schools, churches. But spoken by then 82-year-old activist and environmentalist Hattie Carthan, they were about trees, specifically the 1,500 trees she had spent her twilight years planting as the leader of the “Bedford-Stuyvesant Beautification Committee.” When Carthan first moved onto Vernon Avenue in 1953, it was a beautiful tree-lined street in the heart of Bed-Stuy. But over the course of a decade, all but three of the trees had died, thanks in large part to neglect from the city. To fight back against this deterioration, Carthan organized her neighbors into the T&T-Vernon Block Association. Together, they held a BBQ to raise funds for four trees, which, when planted, quickly died. But thankfully, a much sturdier seed had taken root. By 1966, the Beautification Committee was in full swing and breathing new life into Bed-Stuy. At its height, it powered over 100 different block associations, each of which took ownership of its respective trees. In addition to her duties as Committee chair, Carthan also taught classes on tree care and conservation to students in the neighborhood. She would then hire and pay these same students to be part of her “Neighborhood Tree Corps,” which oversaw the maintenance of the hundreds of ginkgos, sycamores, and honey locusts blooming in the borough. Though Carthan received occasional grant support from the city, the Committee was always run by and for the community. In truth, her trees didn’t just beautify the neighborhood... they saved it. Carthan’s work marked a major turning point for urban agriculture in New York City. Though victory gardens had been popular throughout the 1940s (yielding some 200 million pounds of fresh produce for New Yorkers during the war), they mostly faded away by the early 1950s. After that, the only farm gardens left were owned and operated by city parks. Carthan, then, was one of the first to bring the practices of conservation and environmental education out of the bureaucratic system and into the streets. In many ways, she identified something that would come to inform the movement for years and decades to come: Greenspaces could revitalize and sustain historically underserved communities. This idea was put into practice throughout the 1970s by a variety of groups, most notably Liz Christy’s “Green Guerillas,” who planted sunflowers in traffic medians and threw seed bombs into vacant lots along the Bowery. The group blurred the lines between private and public space, seeing every crack and crevice as an opportunity to grow something beautiful. As the still operational collective writes on its website: “The green guerillas began rallying other people to use community gardening as a tool to reclaim urban land, stabilize city blocks, and get people working together to solve problems.” And work together they did. As the financial crisis of the 1970s left public and private lands abandoned by NYC developers, groups like Christy’s moved in to transform and repurpose these plots for the good of their surrounding communities. There was such a gardening boom at this time that the Department of Parks and Recreation established the GreenThumb Program to provide resources, licenses, and protection to these spaces. But as the green revolution began to feel more and more unstoppable, the economic prosperity of the 90s and early 2000s brought things to a screeching halt. Gardens were razed to make way for storefronts. Farms were decimated to grow high-rises instead of neighborhood-sustaining produce. Though coalitions were formed and lawsuits were leveraged against the government, there was little that gardeners and farmers could do to safeguard their land. As recently as last November, a group of 54 organizations came together to present the city with “From the Ground Up: A Petition to Protect New York City’s Community Gardens.” In it, they make a clear argument for why these spaces are so important: Community gardens alleviate food insecurity by providing folks with ready access to fresh, nutritious food. By increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables, community gardens help to confront public health disparities caused by racial and socioeconomic injustice in historically marginalized Black and Latinx communities throughout the city. Community gardens are a community-led response to environmental racism, helping to curb disproportionate air pollution and susceptibility to illness. Community gardens help to correct unequal access to greenspace in NYC by providing low-income New Yorkers with space to learn from and connect with nature. At Food Bank, we recognize the vital role that urban agriculture plays in the fight against hunger in our city. That’s why we partner with organizations across the five boroughs that operate their own community gardens and farms. One of these member agencies is The Campaign Against Hunger, which currently has two farms in Brooklyn: Far Rock Farm in Far Rockaway and Saratoga Farm in Bed-Stuy, not a stone’s throw from where Hattie Carthan planted her first tree nearly six decades ago. Like Carthan, TCAH takes a community-first approach to everything it does, which Director of Programs Tamara Dawson told me is what makes its farms so special. “For us, it’s important to understand our community and what it needs,” explained Dawson. “Before every growing season, we do a survey with our clients to figure out what they want to see, what they want us to grow. This is why we grow things like callaloo, snowy eggplant, and dwarf okra... we grow over 100 different species of produce because we want to meet the needs of individuals. It’s so nice when you see a family come in from wherever they’re from and say, ‘Oh my God! You have this?!’” It’s a transcendent moment, one that speaks not only to the importance of access and representation, but to the very power of food itself to affirm who we are and where we come from. By planting vegetables, fruits, and herbs from all over the world, TCAH builds an instant bridge to home for its neighbors, a bridge that might otherwise not exist at all. Aside from growing culturally appropriate food, TCAH also educates and employs students from the neighborhood to run and operate its farms. The Green Teens Program hearkens back to Carthan’s Neighborhood Tree Corps in that it empowers kids to give back and protect their communities. It also pays them, which allows them to support local businesses, take care of family, and live their lives with more dignity and freedom. “We are a product of our environment and of what we eat, [which is why] it’s so important that our farms are youth-run. It’s important for us to educate our youth not only on how to grow food, but how to stand up and be an advocate for food justice. Our green teens go out and partner with seniors in the neighborhood, show them different plants they can grow in their apartments, show them how to grow a tomato plant on the fire escape. It’s important that we give back to our community and that we educate from within.” Now more than ever, we must do our part to protect these invaluable spaces. As the New York City Community Garden Coalition (NYCCGC) and Earthjustice write in “From the Ground Up,” the way to do this is to increase legal protections for community gardens and farms by designating them as Critical Environmental Areas. That way, farmers will be able to grow food, educate the public, and sustain neighborhoods without fear of having their livelihoods destroyed. So spread the word, contact your local councilperson, and visit a garden in your neighborhood today! Taking the time to connect with the land and the people who work it will undoubtedly change your relationship with whatever city you call home.
Food Insecurity |Happy Ramadan to all who celebrate! This month-long season is a sacred and important time for Muslim communities around the world, including the ones we serve here in New York City. Though perhaps best known as a time for fasting, it’s also a time for gathering with family and friends around an Iftar meal. It’s a time of charity, of giving back. And, most importantly, it’s a time to reenergize for the year to come, to set intentions and manifest abundance for your neighbors and yourself. How does all of this connect back to Food Bank? Well, the spirit of Ramadan is baked right into our mission. As the Director of our Community Kitchen & Food Pantry Sultana Ocasio recently told me, “During Ramadan, I could walk into a mosque where no one knows me and get fed... [and that] informs my work throughout the year in terms of serving folks in a way that’s not prohibitive or judgmental. It’s about welcoming people to the Community Kitchen the same way you’d welcome someone into your home.” As practicing Muslims will know, this idea of open-hearted charity (or Zakat) is a major tenet of Islam. Though required year-round, the practice takes on new meaning during Ramadan. For many, performing Zakat through food is an important rite of the season, whether by providing dried dates and rice to loved ones at an Iftar meal, or donating time, money, and resources to food pantries and soup kitchens. Though fasting during Ramadan isn’t necessarily about reflecting on the systemic nature of hunger, it does provide folks with an opportunity to think critically about their relationships with food. “It gives you empathy, though that’s not the purpose,” explained Ocasio. “Feeling your body weak with hunger and thirst, you can’t help but think of those who don’t have a choice, who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.” At Food Bank, we’re in a unique position to mobilize that empathy in service of one of the largest Muslim populations in the United States. According to a report from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, nearly 800,000 Muslims live in NYC, which means that approximately 22% of all of America’s Muslims live right here in the Big Apple. This diverse populace includes descendants of Muslims who have lived in the US since before its founding as well as immigrants from over 75 different countries. To serve our Muslim neighbors, we provide halal meat at our Food Pantry and also partner with halal agencies across the city to get culturally appropriate food into the hands of those who need it most. But having the food itself is just one piece of the puzzle – we’re also doing the work to build trust within these communities to let them know that our halal meat actually adheres to halal requirements. “I wear a scarf and approach people with the greetings of Salaams. When I approach to offer halal meat to clients, there’s still a level of doubt. They can’t believe it’s really halal," says Ocasio. “If you normally get halal meat, you usually go to a specific halal butcher, so coming to a place like Food Bank, you may not trust that it’s actually halal.” To get the word out, Ocasio has spoken to local Imams to let their congregants know about the halal food available at our Kitchen, but says it’s been a slow process. In her words: “It takes time to develop that trust, it really takes time.” But for Ocasio, and for us, it’s time well spent. By developing that trust, we’re not only able to better distribute our halal resources, but we’re also able to destigmatize some of the shame associated with standing on a pantry line, which Ocasio says can be challenging for certain communities. “I think a barrier for some folks is the actual visibility of going to a food pantry. In some cultures, going to a food pantry is not considered a big deal at all. But for other cultures, folks will get talked about in their community. For a lot of people who are immigrants, coming to this country meant that they’re supposed to be making money and providing resources to their families back home... [so the question becomes] how could you come to this country and go on a food line? The visibility of receiving food or admitting it can be extremely difficult for some people.” Though we can’t dismantle this shame overnight, we can do our part to chip away at it over time. We do this by providing resources that affirm the cultures, beliefs, and traditions of the folks we serve. We do this by training our staff to be sensitive to the unique needs of our clients. And we do this by centering and prioritizing the dignity of everyone who walks through our doors. Whether you observe Ramadan or not, these questions of inclusion, equity, and access are important ones to think about. They’re certainly ones we ponder throughout the year, and ones we hope to answer in tandem with you. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to fighting hunger, and so our work must be nuanced and hyper-focused on the lived experiences of our neighbors. In truth, there is simply no replacement for meeting people where they’re at, asking what they need, and delivering it to them without judgement or shame. To support us in this work and to get involved yourself, click here. And feel free to join us for “Iftar on the Go” an initiative with NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer and Islamic Relief in which we’ll be providing free halal Iftar meals at our Community Kitchen in Harlem. Distributions will be on April 15, April 22, April 29, and May 6 at 4 pm.
Food Insecurity |It’s National Volunteer Month, which means it’s the perfect time to join us in the fight against hunger! Thankfully, there are a ton of ways to get involved, from putting in shifts at a local soup kitchen to advocating for hunger relief on social media. For a little inspiration, check out our guide below, which outlines some easy ways to leverage your talents to combat food insecurity. Join a Virtual Service Event Though not all onsite volunteer opportunities are back up and running yet, there are still a number of ways to get involved with hunger relief virtually. In fact, many organizations like ours have been holding virtual volunteer events throughout the pandemic to connect folks and galvanize for action. Click here to join Food Bank’s next virtual service event on 4/21! Support a Local Pantry When giving back, it’s always best to keep things local. So, use our Food Finder Map to locate one of our member food pantries or soup kitchens in your neighborhood that you can support. It’s a great way to fight hunger and show up for the folks in your neck of the woods. Write a Letter to a New Yorker in Need During challenging times, a kind note can make a huge impact in someone’s life. While we're not currently accepting onsite volunteer assistance at our Community Kitchen, our “Dear New York” program allows you to interact with our clients in a safe, socially distant way. Simply write a letter and we’ll slip it into one of our to-go pantry bags. To get started, check out our “Dear New York” toolkit. Use Social Media An easy way to make a difference in the fight against hunger is to get the word out on social media. Our Social Media Ambassador Program encourages volunteers to use their platforms to educate people on our mission and the state of food insecurity in NYC. As we’ve seen throughout 2020, social media has transformed into a lifeline for folks looking to start important conversations and share resources. Go on a Food Rescue Mission There are many restaurants, cafés, and grocery stores that throw away perfectly good food at the end of the business day, either because it’s not shelf-stable or because it’s company policy. As you can imagine, this creates a huge surplus of food that’s completely going to waste. To help save these resources and redistribute them to organizations that can use them, consider going on a food rescue mission! Groups like Food Rescue US can help you come up with your rescue plan. Advocate for Hunger Relief There’s never been a better time to advocate for hunger relief at the federal level. President Biden has made it clear that combatting food insecurity is a major priority for his administration, which presents a great opportunity for you to use your voice to impact national policy. Join our action team to send letters to your members of Congress in support of legislation that expands food assistance nationwide.