Browse by topic
Subscribe to our blog
Food Insecurity |Byline: Janis Robinson and Margaret Harrell Every year, Veterans Day gives us the chance to honor the millions who have served in the United States Armed Forces. But it also offers us an opportunity to shine a light on the pervasive and largely hidden issues of poverty and food insecurity within veteran communities across the country. Even before the onset of COVID-19, the veteran poverty rate in New York City was 56 percent higher than the New York State average and 79 percent higher than the national average – rates that have only increased throughout the pandemic. According to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 1.5 million veterans are living in poverty. Of these veterans, 11.1 percent were described as food insecure and an additional 5.3 percent were described as living in households with very low food security. These rates were highest for veterans of color, veterans who are disabled, female veterans, and veterans experiencing serious mental health issues; in fact, one analysis found that veterans in this latter group faced food insecurity at rates ten times higher than their peers. Though it’s difficult to discern a precise “why” behind these findings, we can extrapolate a few root causes common to other historically marginalized groups, including low household incomes, racial- and gender-based discrimination, homelessness, and difficulty accessing government assistance. In the above analysis, for example, researchers discovered that less than one-third of food insecure veterans were receiving aid from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), even when they qualified for the benefit. This generally occurs when individuals don’t know about the program, don’t understand how it works, or feel shame about participating in it. Consistent in all of this is a need for more meaningful data. That way, organizations like ours will be better positioned to allocate resources and understand the real needs of our veteran neighbors. But we can’t just sit around waiting for data – we must do everything in our power to fight this issue as it exists right now. That’s why Food Bank is proud to partner with organizations like the Bob Woodruff Foundation, which provide invaluable grants to agencies in our extensive member network to innovate new solutions to fight hunger for the veteran New Yorkers they serve. One such group is Part of the Solution (POTS), a Food Bank partner agency in the Bronx that not only distributes food, but provides legal aid, case management, and free mental health services to clients like John, a Vietnam War vet forced to end his service because of severe injuries. “People weren’t accepting us too much back then… they didn’t welcome us with open arms,” John explains of his return to the States. “Jobs were on and off, my disability started catching up to me… It was a struggle, a real big struggle.” Thankfully, he found his way to POTS in the early 1980s. Even when he became a single parent to his two sons, John (pictured below) says he’s always been able to rely on the organization for the food he needs to take care of himself and his family. “With friends like this you can never lose. You’ll always be ahead.” For organizations like the Food Bank For New York City to continue the work of supporting veterans like John, they need support of their own. Not only so they can provide food to veteran-servicing agencies across the city, but so that they can empower these groups to develop new ways of meeting the diverse needs of their veteran clients. The fight against food insecurity in these communities necessitates a nuanced approach, pairing food assistance with essential mental health services, housing aid, and financial empowerment resources. Otherwise, hunger will only persist, when it absolutely must end. Janis Robinson is the Vice President of Institutions & Partnerships at the Food Bank For New York City and Margaret Harrell is the Chief Program Officer at the Bob Woodruff Foundation.
Advocacy |Period poverty is a phenomenon in which individuals are unable to access the menstrual care products they need to have healthy and hygienic periods. It’s a pervasive issue that affects communities around the world, including ones we serve here in New York City. In this article, we’re going to explore the subject of period poverty by defining what it is, digging into some research, consulting with experts, and discussing how we tackle the issue at Food Bank. What is Period Poverty? If you’re unfamiliar with the term “period poverty,” it basically refers to the difficulty some folks face in affording the menstrual hygiene products they need to safely take care of their periods. The monthly cost of period products can be extremely prohibitive for individuals already struggling to pay for things like food, rent, and utilities. So, they may go without, meaning they’ll either skip work or school to avoid the shame of menstruating in public without these tools or care for their periods using unsanitary goods like paper bags, toilet paper, bits of cloth, and rags. As the World Bank writes in its report on Period Poverty: “Given the multiple challenges [menstruators] face, it is evident that promoting menstrual hygiene management is not only a sanitation matter; it is also an important step towards safeguarding the dignity, bodily integrity, and overall life opportunities of [all who menstruate].” And this isn’t just anecdotal – though limited, research on the subject of period poverty has been gaining ground in recent years. A 2019 study explored the menstrual needs of low-income communities by surveying clients at 10 non-profit organizations in St. Louis. Researchers discovered that 64% of the 183 respondents were unable to afford menstrual care products in the previous year and nearly half could not afford to buy both food and menstrual hygiene products. The mental health implications are clear; according to a 2021 report, period poverty was found to be associated with increased levels of anxiety and depression. Dismantling Shame If the problem is so obvious, why hasn’t it been solved? One of the biggest roadblocks is that we’re not very good about talking about periods. There’s an immense amount of shame and stigma surrounding the topic, which can make it difficult for folks to have honest conversations about the needs of those who menstruate. “A major obstacle that stands in front of us... is this taboo around menstruation,” explains Period Inc. founder Nadya Okamoto in her 2016 TEDx Talk on the subject. "The most sustainable way to accomplishing... gender equality is by improving education and employment opportunities for women and girls. But no matter how much attention we put toward creating these opportunities, women and girls cannot take full advantage of them if periods [and period poverty] aren’t addressed.” This sentiment was echoed by Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, Vice President for Development at the Brennan Center for Justice, founder of the non-profit group Period Equity, and author of Periods Gone Public. As she explained to me, she sees it as a scale of stigma, ranging from shushed conversations in the home to full-on derision in certain communities. The stigma is real, and there are many communities in which periods are derided, seen as culturally or socially undesirable, or viewed as dirty and problematic. There are places where people are forced out of public life when their periods begin. There’s a wide array of stigma that’s rooted in all of these institutions in our lives, whether cultural or religious, whether familial or generational. Advancing a public agenda around menstruation, then, is about dismantling this stigma. According to Weiss-Wolf, the only way to make menstruating more equitable is to normalize the discussion, to essentially create a “new bar” for what normal is. By doing this, we could increase access to period products (so folks could get to them for free without judgment) and finally do away with things like the much-maligned Tampon Tax. Defeating the Tampon Tax In many states, menstrual care products like tampons, pads, cups, and sponges are subject to sales tax when other items (like dandruff shampoo in Texas, licorice in Arizona, and chocolate bars in California) are not. They’re also not covered by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which means that even if you qualify for SNAP benefits, you still have to pay for period products. This may not seem like that big of a deal, but the fact that this tax only affects those who menstruate marks it as discriminatory and unconstitutional. Further, it prevents these products from being labeled as what they are – essentials that should be available to whoever needs them whenever they need them. Weiss-Wolf's work at Period Equity is all about fighting against this tax by leveraging lawsuits, tracking state movement on the tax, and raising awareness about the issue. There are still currently 30 states that tax menstrual hygiene products, and you can see the zany products they don’t tax on this fun interactive map. Ultimately, defeating the Tampon Tax is kind of like a Trojan Horse – eliminating it won’t immediately solve the issue of period poverty, but it will lift a small financial burden for those who can afford to buy these goods, challenge antiquated tax standards, and start a wider conversation about menstruation in the United States. “I come at this movement as both a lawyer and policy thinker,” explains Weiss-Wolf. “So, it’s not that the things that I work on need to be the focal point... but they are places where there’s opportunity to do policy and get things done.” Expanding the Conversation In addition to destigmatizing periods and fighting for policy change on the Hill, it’s vital that we expand and deepen our conversations around menstruation to make them more inclusive. Not all people who menstruate are women, and not all women menstruate. Period poverty affects not only women and girls, but transgender, genderqueer, non-binary, and gender nonconforming people, too. Menstruation is a natural bodily process, so there’s really no need to gender it at all. Instead of calling tampons and pads “feminine hygiene products,” for example, try calling them “menstrual care products” or “menstrual hygiene products.” When referring to people who have periods, try the term “menstruator,” an inclusive descriptor that embodies all who menstruate. At Food Bank, we’re working to neutralize our own conversations around period poverty. When we first started our “Woman to Woman” campaign in 2016, we were focusing on serving the unique needs of the 1 in 5 women and girls facing poverty in New York City. We soon realized, though, that they weren’t the only ones struggling to access menstrual care products or education around menstruation. That’s why we’re committed to being as inclusive as possible when talking about or educating on this subject. "When we think about this stigma attached to period poverty, we’re not just thinking about how it affects women and girls,” explains Amanda Williams, Manager of School & Community Based Initiatives at Food Bank For New York City. “It’s a widespread narrative that people can be a part of, however they identify.” Building on the Momentum Thankfully, there’s been a lot of great movement on the issue of menstrual equity in the past few years. Scotland, for example, made headlines in November when it became the first country in the world to make period products free for all. New Zealand quickly followed with the announcement that it would be providing free period products in all schools. And in New York City, two teenage advocates campaigned for period products to be included in COVID-19 emergency relief efforts... and won. Change is possible, and we’re feeling it in this very moment. Last spring, Representative Grace Meng (D-NY) introduced the “Menstrual Equity for All Act” in Congress, which proposed that Medicaid cover menstrual product purchases and demanded that schools, workplaces, and shelters provide free period products. Proponents of the bill argue that increasing access to these goods will not only alleviate a financial strain, but also diminish period shame. Some companies are also getting involved in these efforts. In 2018, Procter & Gamble launched its #EndPeriodPoverty campaign, which provides Always and Tampax products to food banks in the Feeding America network, including Food Bank For New York City. We then take these products and distribute them throughout our member network of food pantries, soup kitchens, and schools. At the moment, we partner with 25 schools across the five boroughs to provide free menstrual care products to their students, making it possible for them to access these goods without judgement or shame. “We began doing this three or four years ago when there was an ask around hygiene products brought to the New York City Council,” Williams told me. “The City Council was hearing from these families that this issue was as important as food insecurity, as housing insecurity. At Food Bank, when you get a chance to engage with these families... [you learn] that there are other pieces that are needed in a family to survive.” Getting Involved If you’re ready to join us in the fight against period poverty in New York City and beyond, visit our "Woman to Woman” campaign hub to find out how you can get involved. You can donate funds, give menstrual care products directly to our member agencies on the ground, or even start a personal fundraiser to get your family and friends involved, too. And if you simply want to learn more about the issue, check out these fantastic resources: “At Food Pantries, Addressing the Needs of Women” - The New York Times “Menstrual Equity: A Legislative Toolkit” - Period Equity & ACLU “The Fight for Menstrual Equity Continues in 2021” - Marie Claire “Why You Absolutely Need to Care About Period Poverty and Stigma” - Shape
Advocacy |In this article, we’re going to examine where and how the issues of food justice and racial justice intersect. We’ll dig into a little history, consult with some research, and chat about how we address this intersection here at Food Bank For New York City. A small disclaimer before we get started: This is a huge topic, and I won’t be able to cover all of it in this post. Important things will be left out, simply because no single article can capture the breadth and complexity of this intersection. My intention here is to light a fire in your belly, to get you excited to learn more, and ultimately to do something! That’s why I’ve included a round-up of links and resources for further reading at the bottom of this page. Last disclaimer, I PROMISE: The beliefs, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are my own and don’t reflect those of Food Bank For New York City at large. Now let’s dive in! The Power of Stories As community activist LaDonna Redmond so brilliantly exclaims in her 2013 TEDx Talk Food + Justice = Democracy: “Food Justice is about the narratives of people of color. The stories we tell ourselves about the food movement are as important as the ones we’ve left out.” This is a crucial grounding for us to keep in mind as we dig in today. As Redmond explains, there is no way to talk about the fight against hunger without acknowledging the violence and racism that created our modern industrial food system in the first place. Not only was this system quite literally built on the backs of slaves, but it continues to actively oppress communities of color by limiting their access to nutritious, affordable food via strategies like redlining (wherein services and goods are denied by the government either directly or through the selective raising of prices) and food apartheid (wherein communities are intentionally segregated to block equitable access to resources). Our food system has also historically benefitted from the subjugation of Indigenous people. In a trio of cases tried in the 1800s (the so-called “Marshall Trilogy”), the Supreme Court legalized the theft of Native land. The first of these rulings came down in 1823 when Chief Justice John Marshall established the “Discovery Doctrine,” which stated that the United States’ “right of discovery” of these lands was more legitimate than Indigenous communities’ “rights of occupancy.” Um... what? Yes, a government we created out of thin air was able to assert ownership over millions of acres of fertile, food-producing land that rightfully belonged to Indigenous people... all by means of a legal decision that was also created out of thin air. These are the stories we tell ourselves. These are the stories we leave out. I bring up the “Marshall Trilogy” to illustrate how racism and oppression have been baked into our country (and our food system) from its inception. Our founding fathers clearly understood one simple and insidious truth: Whoever controls the food and the land controls the people. The Power of Policy This notion of control is at the heart of the food justice movement: Who controls where the grocery stores are built? Who controls which schools get cafeteria equipment to cook fresh meals? Who controls which crops are grown? Who controls how and for whom food is distributed? So often, the answer lies somewhere in the government, where control is exercised through complicated policies that entrap communities slowly over time. In its report “Building the Case for Racial Equity in the Food System,” the Center for Inclusion says this is why we must look “at the food system through the lens of policies, institutions, and people together.” To illustrate this point, the report spotlights the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which was created after the Great Depression to provide loans to families so they could buy homes. Though it may have been a fantastic idea on paper, the loan program was highly discriminatory in practice – throughout the 1930s and 50s, only 2 percent of these loans went to people of color. And the FHA greatly favored suburban homes over urban ones, which promoted a “white flight” from city centers. This is also where redlining first appears, as Black and Brown communities were colored red on official FHA-sponsored insurance maps to indicate that they were “dangerous” and “high-risk” investments for the administration. What does any of this have to do with food? Well, when people left the cities, grocery stores soon followed, as did federal funding for vital infrastructures like highways and roads. This monetary divestment diminished spending on things like public transportation, which made it difficult for city folk to get to the few food retailers that remained. This led to the creation of “food deserts,” or areas where there was limited access to nutritious and affordable food. And of course, the suburbs didn’t magically appear overnight – they were wrought from the land, which reduced space for farming. This is just one example of how seemingly innocuous policy can, and continues to, disproportionately impact communities of color. In this case, the racial segregation encouraged by the FHA critically changed how Black and Brown people were able to get the food and resources they needed. That we can still feel this disparity in our cities today speak volumes to the lasting power of public policy. The Power of Community So, how do we fight back against these disparities? One solution is to align the fights for food and racial justice. This idea began to take shape in the late 1960s, when the Black Panther Party established the “Free Breakfast for School Children Program.” This initiative was built on a simple premise: BPP volunteers would source ingredients from local grocery stores, cook up the meals, and provide them to students in food insecure communities, all without costing their families a dime. The program started in Oakland, CA, in 1969 but quickly spread to cities across the United States. At its peak, the project was serving thousands of children every day. Unsurprisingly, this success was met with fierce opposition by the government, who worked tirelessly to shut the whole thing down. They eventually did, but the program was so popular that the USDA had little choice but to federalize their own School Breakfast Program in 1975. Was the government angry over free grits and eggs? No. Were they terrified of what collaborative community organization might mean for the racist systems they’d built? You tell me. When I asked Food Bank’s Senior Director of Member Engagement Zanita Tisdale whether or not food justice was possible without racial justice, she answered with a resounding “No.” How can we attempt to dissociate food insecurity from the very people who have been economically marginalized since long before the Jim Crow era? When you look at communities most significantly impacted by food insecurity... the connection to racial disparities is clear. Black Americans face hunger at twice the rate of white, non-Hispanic Households. For Tisdale, the work, then, is about harnessing community power to fill in the gaps that food insecurity leaves behind. As the free school breakfasts provided by the Black Panthers helped children stay awake and alert in class so they could earn better grades, the free meals and pantry goods provided by Food Bank helps to combat the economic structures that hold many food-insecure Black families in stasis. Access to food that is nutritious and affordable should be a basic human right. But because this right is not always guaranteed, Food Bank commits to providing those very food items for free to those who are most marginalized by systemic racism to contribute to the ability for Black families to have a fighting chance at upward economic mobility. The Power of Moving Forward But it’s not just about getting free food to people who need it. To sustain the fight against hunger in historically marginalized communities, local leaders must be empowered with resources, knowledge, and support. From Tisdale’s perspective, there’s a lot that hunger-relief organizations like Food Bank can do to help dismantle systemic racism. For her, it’s all about working to not only identify areas of high need, but to drive resources directly to them. That’s why Food Bank works with an extensive network of over 800 member agencies on the ground to make sure we’re always meeting hunger wherever it is. We’re also launching a new professional development series for the leaders of color that power many of these member organizations: Food Bank's Masterclass series is designed to enhance organizational infrastructure for our member non-profits' leaders of color. The series leverages both non-profit expertise and corporate resources to educate participants on HOW to best position their organization to operate with strong business acumen to weather any storm. In some cases, moving forward can also resemble a return to the land. This is at least what Leah Penniman strives to do at Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, NY. There, the educator, farmer, author, and food justice activist teams up with local members of the community to equip them with the knowledge they need to farm and work the land. Penniman is part of a growing movement of Black and Brown farmers tackling food insecurity and hunger by harnessing the agrarian traditions of their ancestors. As she explains in a recent conversation with Dr. Mark Hyman: “Part of the solution to poverty and injustice in our food system is bringing everybody back to a right relationship with our food and our land.” Final Thoughts Access to delicious, nutritious, and healthy food must be a human right: pointblank, period. But because it is not, the issue of food justice must inherently become one of racial, economic, and housing justice, too. Time is also up for the systems governing our immigration policies and law enforcement practices – they can NO longer escape reform. Justice must include these things (and more) because food insecurity is a product of oppression and it can only be rooted out by disrupting the systems that hold communities of color down. For more on this topic, check out the resources below! “Food Justice and Racism in the Food System” - Roots of Change “Principles of Food Justice” - Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy “Dismantling Racism in the Food System” - Food First “Voices from the Field: COVID Crisis Reinforces the Hunger Industrial Complex” - Nonprofit Quarterly And of course, be sure to sign up to join our Action Team to get updates on all of the justice work we’re doing here at Food Bank and to learn how you can get involved!
Food Assistance |Welcome to The Core, Food Bank For New York City’s new blog! We created this space to dive a little deeper into the subjects, stories, and stakeholders that power our mission. You may be familiar with Food Bank as the city's largest hunger relief organization, but our work actually spans a great deal more. So, The Core will give you insight into how we operate, who we serve, and what kinds of impact we make across all five boroughs of the greatest city in the world. But don’t worry, we won’t just be talking about New York! Anyone and everyone with a hunger for food justice, equity, and advocacy will find a home here where they can learn new ideas and read some fantastic stories. To that end, we’ll have content covering a variety of subjects, including: Activism, Nutrition + Health, Financial Empowerment, and Stories from the Field. So, let’s meet these categories and figure out how we use them here at Food Bank and what they’ll mean to you. Activism Activism is at the heart of everything we do. To fight hunger is to actively fight poverty, which includes standing up for and supporting low-income New Yorkers and their families. This means not only getting them the resources they need to survive and thrive, but also advocating for policies that serve their best interests. So, we’ll be tagging stories that deal with both activism and advocacy in the hunger space. We’ll share information about the fights we’re taking on and the ones waging at the local, state, and federal levels. To get involved with our own efforts, join Food Bank’s action team. Nutrition + Health Another important facet of our work is nutrition, specifically as it relates to education, health and equity. Our nutrition program focuses on teaching folks how to establish and maintain healthy habits on a limited budget, which helps to fight hunger while addressing some of poverty’s key contributing factors – in both the short and long term. So, we’ll be giving you your fill of yummy recipes, nutrition tips, and resources exploring the relationships between food, health, culture, and poverty. Food Assistance In this category, we’ll explore not only the topic of food assistance, but also SNAP benefits and enrollment as well as insights into the various factors that impact emergency food providers across the city. We want to make it as easy as possible for people to find food whenever they need it. To do that, we’ve created an array of tools New Yorkers can use to source free meals and connect with local pantries and soup kitchens for immediate food assistance. If you’re looking for food assistance now, check out our virtual food locator. Financial Empowerment Financial empowerment refers to the sense of security that comes from being in control of one’s finances. Have you ever been down to your last 20 bucks, with more month to go before your next check? Not a great feeling. Well, for many low-income New Yorkers, living in a city as expensive as ours makes that feeling a constant companion. To help the New Yorkers we serve feel more financially empowered, we offer an array of financial resources, from free tax assistance for the working poor to SNAP enrollment and community-based financial coaching. We designed these tools because the truth is, fighting hunger takes more than food. If there’s a change in tax policy that could impact New Yorkers or if we’re leading a free (virtual) workshop on financial management, we’ll make sure to cover it here. We’ll also provide tips anyone can use to become a better budgeter! Research The hunger space is a dynamic one, so it’s important to stay on top of all the latest research to ensure that our messaging is current to our cause and relevant to our communities. Food Bank’s proprietary research has long been industry-leading, but we also rely on reports from other prominent institutions to inform the work we do. To keep you up-to-date, we’ll be sharing all of our latest research findings on this blog. Stories from the Field Here, we’ll feature photographs, interviews, and videos from the field. We work with over 1,000 food pantries, soup kitchens, and schools across the city, and our partners on the ground are the ones who keep this whole operation running. And trust us – they've got plenty of stories to tell! We’ll also share stories from those who experience hunger firsthand so that you can better understand what food insecurity actually looks like. To make sure you never miss a single anecdote, hit subscribe to get fresh updates on The Core as soon as they arrive.