Editor’s Note: This op-ed was written by City Council candidates Julie Won and Jenny Low.
The holiday season is here, and in this extraordinary and challenging year, we’re finding ways to safely celebrate. We’re getting together with family over Zoom, having small, socially-distant outdoor gatherings, or simply sharing a meal with those we live with.
As we spend time with loved ones — however we are able — it’s more important than ever that we support our fellow New Yorkers who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. And right now, that’s true for an astonishing and unacceptable number of our neighbors.
Like many issues facing our city’s most vulnerable residents, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated a long-standing crisis of food insecurity in this city. Before the pandemic, nearly 1.2 million New Yorkers were experiencing food insecurity, including one in five of the city’s children — this was completely unacceptable, and it’s only gotten worse in the months since.
As people face unemployment, uncertainty, and a dearth of real leadership at every level of government, the number of food insecure New Yorkers has risen to around two million people or more. A study by Hunger Free America shows that 38 percent of parents reported eating smaller meals or skipping them entirely for their children at the beginning of the pandemic because they did not have enough money to make ends meet.
This is a horrifying but all-too-common reality for our neighbors, and it’s incumbent upon our City and State leaders to take bold and immediate action to address this crisis. No one should have to choose between feeding their family and paying rent.
Not long after the pandemic began, mutual aid groups started to pop up all over the city, with New Yorkers stepping up to support their neighbors, deliver meals and groceries to those who couldn’t leave their apartments, share resources, and cover bills and medical costs for those struggling. It has been incredible to see the power and strength of community come through in trying times.
In our communities in Lower Manhattan and Western Queens, we have been lucky to work with Rethink Food, a nonprofit dedicated to getting healthy meals to the food insecure. Rethink does the important work of empowering restaurants to nourish the communities they work in, cut down on food waste, and deliver nutritious meals. In Chinatown and the Lower East Side, we’ve been able to volunteer since the early days of the pandemic to deliver more than 800,000 healthy, culturally-sensitive meals to seniors and those in need. In Western Queens, we have worked with Rethink Food to distribute meals in Astoria and Long Island City.
But New Yorkers shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of our city’s broken social safety net. It’s true that the City has led a massive effort to address hunger since the start of the pandemic by working with anti-hunger organizations. But the City was not prepared for a crisis of this scale, the stop-gap measures haven’t been enough, and people are suffering.
We need to use every tool in our arsenal to get relief to those who are struggling and ensure that no one goes hungry. And our efforts have to be centered around our values: that every person has the right to free, healthy, culturally-sensitive meals and should be treated with dignity and respect.
That starts with expanding our city’s food safety net and capacity to feed those facing hunger. We need leaders who will unapologetically fight to expand SNAP benefits and reduce barriers for those who are eligible for the program. We should allow SNAP recipients to use EBT cards to purchase meals at restaurants during the pandemic, which will help bolster local businesses. Supporting programs like Health Bucks through GrowNYC will go a long way in bolstering local farmers as our economy continues to struggle and allowing families to prepare meals of their own choice. The City must do intentional outreach to every corner of our communities to ensure that families know about take-out and community meals distributed at their schools, regardless of whether they are learning remotely.
We’re facing so many enormous challenges this year, but one thing is clear: we can’t allow any of our neighbors to go hungry.
Julie Won is a candidate for City Council District 26 in Queens and Jenny Low is a candidate for City Council District 1 in Manhattan.