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Food pantry assists hidden victims of Sept. 11

3/20/2002 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York

NOTE: Photographs are available with this report. *Bloom is news director of United Methodist News Service's New York office and a member of the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew.













NEW YORK (UMNS) - Daisy Nunz is one of the hidden victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Even before that time, she had traveled from her home on the east side of Manhattan to the west side to draw a monthly allotment of food at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger (WSCAH), the food pantry program at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, United Methodist.

But New York's economic slump has cost Nunz her part-time job as a bus matron, making it even more difficult to support her five children, ages 7 to 19.

Her situation isn't much different from those of other customers at the food pantry. Lucy Aponte's husband, the family breadwinner, died in January. Of her four children, a daughter lost a job near the World Trade Center and a son is unemployed. She herself is disabled and unfit for work.

Isabel Tejada's job at an electronics center in Queens was reduced to part time after Sept. 11, and she was laid off on March 14. Her five-member family lives with another family to survive. Rena Bernal, the mother of two sons, was laid off from a job at a private mail facility but has not worked enough years to qualify for food stamps.

Maxima Javier used her paycheck as a home attendant to pay the rent and other bills and depended upon the food pantry for food. But she has lost that job, and she and her two daughters and two grandchildren - who moved in with her after Sept. 11 - also have doubled up with another family. "I don't like that," she says, "but it's a common situation."

The fact that they are all customers at WSCAH, the largest food pantry in Manhattan, is not surprising. Doreen Wohl, who has served as executive director since 1992, notes that the usage patterns at the pantry often mimic U.S. labor statistics on unemployment.

The number of monthly meals distributed between July 2000 and July 2001, for example, had almost doubled from about 30,000 to 60,000 - a jump Wohl attributes to the economic recession. After Sept. 11, the October and November distributions hit an all-time peak of nearly 70,000 meals. Statistics for January and February of this year had settled back to just under 60,000.

The economic impact of Sept. 11 registered at the food pantry within a week, says the Rev. James "K" Karpen, senior pastor of the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew and chairman of WSCAH's board of directors. The first new customers tended to be those in lower-level jobs in businesses directly impacted by the terrorist attacks - the airline, airport and hotel workers and those employed at companies near the World Trade Center.

"Then the ripple effect began in mid-October as people were laid off in general and the economy took a nose dive," he explains, adding that many of those employees have not found new jobs. "They're going to stay out of work until the economy picks up, probably."

Elsa Rosario has personal experience with the ripple effect. She receives Supplemental Security Income (SSI) checks through Social Security, but her daughter used to help her pay her bills. Now, her daughter, a home health aide, has been laid off.

Margarita Rosa, a retired factory seamstress, thinks she may have to go back to work - if she can find a job. Her daughter, a laid-off home health aide, and her children moved in with Rosa after Sept. 11 and have been trying to survive on Rosa's SSI check.

The increase in demand has pushed WSCAH to the brink in terms of funding, and Wohl is grateful to the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) for providing a $35,000 grant to buy food through its "Love in the Midst of Tragedy" offering. She and Karpen hope to receive more UMCOR funding, as part of its general response to the effects of Sept. 11, in the near future.

"The United Methodist Committee on Relief has been wonderful and totally essential to meet the increase and need in providing food," Wohl says. "Without it, we would be turning people away."

Broad support

It was the need in the neighborhood - as more and more people came to the church asking for food - that led members of St. Paul and St. Andrew, at the corner of West End Avenue and West 86th Street, to establish the food pantry in 1978. It was run on a shoestring budget before the church obtained funding through the health department and the city's poverty program.

When Wohl came on board in October 1992, she helped re-shape the program. One change involved setting up shelving that allowed customers to select food items themselves, as if they were in a grocery store.

She relies upon her customers, both for suggestions and volunteer help. "It's really with the assistance of people who are customers that the pantry has developed and is run," Wohl explains. "People are always willing to volunteer."

Today, about two-thirds of WSCAH's annual budget of just more than $1 million comes from city, state and federal government sources. The cash budget of $634,000 includes $414,000 in government grants. Other monetary support is derived from churches and synagogues in the community, and more proposals are being made for foundation grants, she says. In-kind food donations account for $436,000 of the budget, with the largest amount, $249,450, coming from the federal temporary food assistance program.

In a city where space is always at a premium, the church's contribution has been substantial. St. Paul and St. Andrew continues to subsidize the lower-level space that the pantry uses in the church, and its members make up one-third of WSCAH's board of directors. The other directors are members from other churches and synagogues or from among the customers themselves.

"The church folks make a huge contribution," Karpen says. That's particularly true in terms of fund raising, general oversight and logistical support. Interfaith support remains essential. "They understand it's a project of the church, but they see it as their project, too."

'They treat you nice'

Every other Tuesday, 18 to 20 pallets of food are delivered to WSCAH from the Bronx warehouse of Food for Survival, the nonprofit food bank of New York. Volunteers and staff help move the boxes of food to storage areas or the customer service area.

On the March 12 delivery day, some volunteers are regulars. Others, like a group of college students on spring break, wearing bright blue T-shirts that identify them as participants in the Youth Services Opportunity Project, are one-time volunteers.

Jeff Williams, who has been a customer with WSCAH off and on since 1990, is stacking boxes in a storage space carved out of the wings of the stage in the church social hall. He lives about 10 blocks away with his wife and two teen-age daughters. He had worked at a new Toys R Us store in Times Square but was laid off after the Christmas rush. He says he comes to help because "they always treat you nice here."

An added benefit to being a volunteer on delivery day is that customers working then are allowed to take food home. If they work both delivery days in a month, "it's twice the amount that someone else might get," Wohl explains.

Although busy, delivery day is decidedly less chaotic than the day after delivery, when experienced customers arrive to take advantage of the best selection of food. By 9 a.m. on March 13, for instance, the church social hall is packed with people waiting to be interviewed by WSCAH counselors, a prerequisite to shopping. Those who have completed interviews jam shopping carts into the small space where cans and boxes adorn the shelves.

Gayle Johnson, a neighborhood resident and member of a Presbyterian church that provides financial assistance to WSCAH, volunteers twice a month on the day after delivery. On the 13th, she counted the customers' selected items through a point system as they checked out, and then bagged the groceries. What she noticed the most after Sept. 11, she says, "were more new people who had never been here before."

Single mothers

Johanna Solano, a WSCAH staff counselor for the past year, points to "an incredible amount of job loss" in the hotel, retail and taxi industries.

One customer she interviewed was pregnant on Sept. 11. Her husband, the sole breadwinner, was an elevator operator in the south tower of the World Trade Center and was trying to get people out of the building when it collapsed. All they found of him, according to Solano, was his hand, still adorned with his wedding ring. "She comes here on a regular basis but has such a tough time finding a job," she adds.

Single mothers are the largest group of recipients at WSCAH. "Even if they are working, they aren't getting enough hours," Solano says.

About 40 percent of WSCAH's customers could be classified as "working poor." Another 23 percent are on fixed incomes, 22 percent receive public assistance and 14 percent have no income at all.

But food pantry customers aren't confined to those in minimum-wage positions. "We've had people come in with master's degrees to pick up pantry (items)," Solano notes.

For someone new to it, the system can be rather overwhelming. Angie Hall sat quietly amid the bustle, watching over her 7-month-old son, Jordan, who recently had surgery for hydrocephalus, a condition of the brain. She lives in a nearby shelter, where she is lucky enough to have her own room and bathroom and a place to cook.

Hall had worked as a bartender for three years and quit a couple of months before giving birth. Finding work again while tending an infant with a medical problem is difficult at best. "I applied for public assistance," she says. "Now I'm just waiting for them to give me an answer."

More than food

What makes even the busiest times easier, for both customers and staff, is the atmosphere in which WSCAH operates. "They (customers) are treated with respect and care," Karpen says. "It makes a difference."

The emphasis is not just on the food itself, but how to use that food to the best benefit. "Part of our approach is to take a full look at people's physical well-being," he adds.

With health department funds, WSCAH has been able to provide demonstration cooking projects focusing on how the fresh vegetables available at the pantry can be combined with other food items. A volunteer chef, Rebecca Sparks, assists customers who cook on hot plates five days a week, providing a daily lunch for volunteers and staff.

"If food tastes good, people are going to eat it," Sparks explains. "I'd say we're really making a difference in people's eating attitudes."

A nutritionist also gives a workshop for customers once a week, and a physical trainer who lost his job at a downtown gym after Sept. 11 receives a small stipend to give exercise classes for customers twice a week.

But WSCAH's expansion of both its customer base and the services it provides has greatly strained its physical space.

The pantry was originally set up during a time when it was processing 50 to 60 families a day, but that number has doubled, according to Karpen, and can run up to more than 200 families on the day after delivery. A senior citizen lunch program also turns out 500 to 600 meals a day, five days a week, in the social hall's inadequate kitchen space.

The church itself was named last December as one of the "Ten Sacred Places to Save" by a nonprofit organization, Partners for Sacred Space, based in Philadelphia. The 10 churches and synagogues are considered centers of community service and moral leadership that have suffered because major capital repair needs have gone unmet.

As part of its commitment to maintaining a major mission presence in Manhattan, St. Paul and St. Andrew is publicly launching a $2.1 million capital improvement campaign in March. The goal is to renovate its lower level to create a more efficient, workable space for WSCAH, the senior nutrition program and other church programs. Another goal is to make the area accessible to the handicapped.

Wohl can be contacted via e-mail at dwohl@wscah.org for more information about the pantry. Information about the mission programs at St. Paul and St. Andrew and its capital campaign are available by contacting Karpen at jfkspsa@aol.com, the church's e-mail address.

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