Sustenance: How CNY Feeds the Community

With almost one three Syracuse residents living in poverty, food banks have become a crucial part of the community.

Ambra Tieszen

By Kelly Bucci

Around 11 a.m. every Wednesday, the concession window in the gymnasium at St. Lucy’s Food Pantry begins serving lunch. The line that snakes around the gym moves forward, but never seems to shrink. A woman tries controlling her rowdy child, two men chat loudly in Spanish, and an old man moseys through the doors toward his place at the back of the line. “Today’s not that bad—usually the line is all the way back there,” remarks Viola Girvin, a regular at the lunches, pointing to the very back of the gym. Clad in a gray sweatshirt with messy, short brown hair, she sits across the table from her brother and next to a small, fidgeting 3-year-old boy she’s babysitting for a friend. They come every Wednesday. “Families get together, friends get together,” she says. “It’s a good thing.”

Viola lives across the street from St. Lucy’s on the Southwest Side of Syracuse. She has lived here her entire life, and for the last seven years she’s received groceries from the church’s food pantry every month. “It’s a good place to get away,” Viola says. “To sit down, relax, and enjoy a meal.”

On this Wednesday, the pantry offers turkey, macaroni and cheese, goulash, and pea soup. Viola’s burly 27-year-old nephew, Byron, sits down with a plate filled by almost the entire menu and two loaves of bread. Local bakeries donated the loaves for St. Lucy’s to give out for free. It’s pretty much fresh, Byron says. He scored a large gourmet fruit and nut loaf, which doesn’t always happen.

Byron just moved back home after living with family members three-and-a-half hours north, on a Native American reservation. He went to school and worked at a casino. But his job went downhill and he became homeless, so he called his aunt to ask for a bus ticket home. He moved back into his dad’s house on the Southwest Side three months ago. “I’m trying to get back on my feet right now,” Byron says between bites. He says he recently landed a job at Victoria’s Secret.

According to a 2010 report from the New York State Community Action Association, of the 137,701 individuals living in Syracuse, 37,318 people live in poverty—a little less than one in every three. The Food Bank of Central New York’s 2010 Hunger Study shows over two of every three food bank clients have annual incomes below the official federal poverty line, which is $22,050 for a family of four. “The number of people living below the poverty line is the highest it’s ever been,” says Michelle Jordan, executive director of the Interreligious Food Consortium of CNY, a grassroots organization in Onondaga County that works with the Food Bank of CNY to supply food pantries with groceries and canned goods. The IFC has received a startling influx of calls lately from individuals looking for a place to get free food because, as victims of the recent economic downturn, they can no longer afford groceries. Leslie Dubiel, the director of St. Lucy’s Food Pantry, described one woman’s story, “She speaks broken English, but she told me her medications are so expensive that she spends her food money on medicine now.”

Syracuse houses 70 food pantries, each one within its own designated area. Those unsure about which food pantry serves their targeted region reach out to the IFC, which directs them to the specific pantry that covers their residential area. The need for food has become so widespread that some community members have become dependent on their pantries and the services they provide, says Dubiel. On top of their sit-down lunch every Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., the pantry at St. Lucy’s resembles a grocery store, complete with stocked shelves of different cereals and canned goods, and a large produce fridge filled with bags of lettuce, tomatoes, and an array of fruits and vegetables.

When clients walk in, they take a slip and sit down until a worker calls their number. Then, their “shopping” begins. Volunteers guide the clients through the pantry’s two aisles, helping them pick and choose items to their liking. “Brown rice or white rice? Which type of cereal?  You want tomatoes? Here’s two,” says one. The personal shopper then packs the food into brown bags and sends the client off with, “Have a nice day”—never “We hope you come back soon.” “To me, the most important thing is that people come here and leave here with their dignity,” says Dubiel.

You can see that struggle for respect in the neighborhood surrounding St. Lucy’s. Run-down houses line the streets, and sometimes two or three residents walk the sidewalks, pushing shopping carts full of old recyclables and raggedy blankets. It’s one of the poorest areas of Syracuse. But according to Dubiel, “If you have to be poor, Syracuse is a good city to be poor in.”

On the near West Side of Syracuse, Assumption gives out sandwiches every day to anyone who approaches the sandwich window, even if they aren’t registered at the food pantry or live in the targeted distribution area. The number of customers has spiked there as well, but Brother Nicholas Spano, director of the pantry, says it’s due to a poor infrastructure incapable of helping impoverished people recover. “We work within a broken system,” he says. “What we do is good, what we do changes, but we’re not changing the root of the problem.”

Syracuse currently faces a blossoming hunger issue that stems from a larger economic struggle, both without solutions powerful enough to uproot the problem. In July 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 7.8 percent of Syracuse area residents were unemployed. A concentration of those looking for but unable to find jobs lived within the city. Without a steady paycheck, some residents can’t afford food. And so the number of pantry dependents continues to grow, which, by helping heal the problem, may also be fueling it.

There hasn’t been a supermarket on the Southwest Side since the last one went out of business in the late 1960s. There are only glorified corner stores that sell food that lack any real essential nutrients for outrageous prices. Residents can neither afford the food sold in the store, nor a car to drive to a proper supermarket.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the area has become a “food desert,” an area where healthy food options remain virtually nonexistent for a high concentration of people with low income, leading to poor health and eating habits. But members of the Southwest Side community plan to change this. At the forefront is Carolyn Evans-Dean, the Business Counselor for the Southwest Economic Business Resource Center, a program of the nonprofit affordable housing organization Jubilee Homes of Syracuse. Evans-Dean is spearheading the program’s renovation of a run-down, vacant supermarket in the area. When they received money from the county as compensation for building unpopular sewage treatment sites in the area, Evans-Dean sat down with a focus group of proactive residents to decide what their community needed most. Together, they chose to dole out mini-grants for house repair, invest in community centers, and, as the crown jewel, open their own, long-overdue grocery store. They decided how the store will look and that the employees will get paid enough to make a living. The variety of food sold in the store will be provided by another initiative of Jubilee Homes called the Urban Delights Youth Farmstand Project, which pays individuals to grow and harvest fruits and vegetables from a community garden that they then sell.

Evans-Dean estimates that it will take between three and four million dollars to bring the plan to life, and they can only do so much with the few grants they’ve received. “The economy isn’t great right now,” Evans-Dean says, “so it’s hard to find the funding to do a project like this.” They’re talking with real estate agents, but whether or not they receive private, regional, or national help, she says they will build a grocery store on the South Side. “We will do whatever it takes—even if it means scaling things back,” says Evans-Dean. An official opening date, however, remains uncertain.

But those two nonnegotiable components, if achieved, will help ameliorate the hunger problem encompassing the Southwest Side. The living wages will provide the newly employed workers with a steady income, which they can then use to buy the local, healthy foods sold in the store.  “People will not only have access to healthy food, but they will be able to see where the food comes from,” says Evans-Dean. “Everything is community based. We believe this store will add to the fabric of the community.”

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