On March 1, 2017, Food Bank for New York City mobilized over forty representatives from emergency food relief organizations to the State Capitol for a Statewide Anti-hunger Advocacy Day. The main goal of this event was to connect with State Legislators to request an increased investment in the Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program (HPNAP). The current budget has remained at $34.5M for the last ten years, therefore advocates asked for a 40% increase in order to keep pace with the increasing need for nutritious food.

HPNAP particularly addresses food insecurity in groups with special needs such as seniors, veterans, or working families with children. According to Food Bank, three out of four pantries in New York City do not have enough food to reach the most vulnerable populations. In New York City, there is a current meal gap of 242 million meals, which is why HPNAP is so essential to hunger prevention work.

I first heard about the legislative event during Food Bank’s NYC’s Hunger and Poverty Conference, which took place on February 7, 2017, where the NY Common Pantry and many other Emergency Food Relief Organizations (EFROs) gathered to learn more about the future of HPNAP and celebrate each other’s work and endeavors of last year. During this event, we learned about HPNAP and EFNEP (Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program), and Food Bank’s current research initiatives to encourage public policy discussions to support programs that allow EFROs to continue to reach hungry New Yorkers. The following week, I signed up to join this event and attend an orientation, which was very informative and thorough, and would prepare us for the Anti-hunger Advocacy Day.

The Anti-Hunger Advocacy Day coordinated by Food Bank’s Triada Stampas and Nicholas Buess was a success. The 12-hour day was packed with meetings and folder drop-offs full of advocacy information and anti-hunger statistics. Every advocate had their own personalized agenda based on district number, which resulted in dozens of meetings and hundreds of postcards and folders delivered to several Program and Home State Senators and Assembly Members. The Emergency Food Relief Organizations (EFROs) that participated in this event are located throughout the five boroughs and distribute tens of millions of pounds of food, every year. Most of them are food banks, pantries, shelters, and soup kitchens, all with one goal in mind: to continue to bring nutritious foods and complementary services to thousands of New Yorkers in need.

On the day of the event, the group of advocates met at 7:00 AM in Downtown Manhattan where all of us got a brief overview of the day’s activities before boarding our bus. Here we picked up our drop-off folders and itinerary for the day. Once we arrived to the State Capitol, my first meeting was with the Office of State Senator José M. Serrano of the 29th District. His office was located at the Legislative Office Building where we met with his staff, and proceeded to introduce ourselves and briefly discuss the impact of HPNAP in each one of our organizations. We emphasized that an increase in funding would allow us to continue to narrow the staggering meal gap in the city. Even though we were not able to meet with Senator Serrano, we felt that the facts and figures we provided to his staff were important in building our case.

After this meeting, we immediately traveled to the office of Assembly Member Robert Rodriguez from District 68. We were fortunate to find him in his office before he headed down to session. He was familiar with our work but was very interested in learning more about HPNAP and its impact from our perspective. Assembly Member Rodriguez and his Chief of Staff, were very supportive and agreed that the work of our organizations is vital to the welfare of our communities. This meeting provided a great opportunity to invite him to the Pantry, and show him how HPNAP has helped us expand our services in the last few years.

Anti-hunger Advocates and Assembly Member Robert Rodriguez from District 68. Photo credit: Food Bank of New York City.

Then I was also scheduled to visit Legislators from the 30th Senate District, which includes Harlem, East Harlem (El Barrio), Upper West Side, Washington Heights, Hamilton Heights, and Morningside Heights. However, Bill Perkins, former Program State Senator, just last month resigned to retake his seat as a NYC Councilmember and this seat remains vacant.

Finally, at 2:45 PM we headed to the office of State Senator Liz Krueger from District 28, (I later learned that her husband, Dr. John E. Seley, is a professor of Urban Planning and Geography at CUNY) located in the Legislative Office Building. We met with her friendly staff, which provided us with not just words of encouragement, but also specific advice on how to keep connecting with key decision-makers and continue to generate support around our cause. It was also suggested that we reach out to the members of the Independent Democratic Conference, as well as continue to send letters and make phone calls after the day of the event.

In addition to the facts and figures we presented, the group of advocates and organizers shared many insights and personal stories that are what ultimately helped convey why these programs are so important to all of us, and why it is important to protect them.

From my personal experience, most of our guests come to rely on pantry services when they lose their jobs, or while they are simply trying to establish themselves in the city. Income is just one of the determinants of health, but anyone living in one of the five boroughs may agree that options can be very limited when half of an individual’s income is spent on rent. It is not unusual for case managers to learn that many of our clients often have to choose rent over food. Learning about each individual client’s situation is the reason why the NY Common Pantry uses a whole person approach to their service plan addressing each layer of support including increased access, education and knowledge, and intention to consume healthy foods; while also connecting our clients to additional resources.

As a nutrition educator working with the low-income population, I believe that time spent developing education programs, should be supported by equal time spent in advocacy work. Food pantries are hubs of community resources that otherwise our clients may not be aware of, not to mention commonly used services such as: barbershop, mail services, clothing room, shower facilities, legal clinic, tax accounting, case management and host Immigrant Justice Corps (IJC). Approaching food insecurity from an advocacy angle is crucial if we want to make lasting changes.

The barriers to health are many, but we can only continue to work and improve community programs if the funding is available and if we are able to help our clients in a way that addresses not just hunger, but overall well-being and dignity. For dietitians and nutrition educators, public health provides the framework to put nutrition education into context, and understanding how food insecurity influences personal choice is just as important as engaging in intentional, consistent advocacy work. Additionally, our job is not just to inform our community, but also to inform the people that represent us to the government. We may see the connections between health literacy, income level, and well-being, as essential to understanding why the meal gap exists; but our job as advocates is to explain why we must continue to narrow it with robust policies and interventions.

If you would like to get involved, please ask your state representatives to support HPNAP today.

You may also contact your Government Officials by calling their State offices, which can be found on https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials.