New York Daily News, July 11, 2008: As food prices rise, New Yorkers have to come to table for food stamps

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Friday, July 11th 2008, 6:40 PM

The economy is going down the drain, the cost of living is going through the roof, and low-income New Yorkers are going to hell in a handbasket. Not a pretty picture.

As if that were not enough, food is becoming a luxury item and the lines at food pantries and soup kitchens keep growing longer.

Fortunately, there is some help available. It’s simply a matter of more eligible New Yorkers – many of them immigrants – taking advantage of the main source of food assistance in the country: federal food stamps.

“I feel very strongly about this,” said Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Queens), who, together with the Homelessness Outreach and Prevention Project at the Urban Justice Center, released a study on Thursday focusing on immigrants and food stamps.

The report, Nourishing NYC: Increasing Food Stamps Access in Immigrant Communities, found that many low-income New Yorkers qualify for food stamps but are not getting them.

“Especially with the rising food prices, hundreds of thousands of people in New York find themselves in a position they never thought they would be in, having to choose between buying food or paying the rent,” Gioia said. “They would be helped by food stamps and many qualify to get them, but don’t know it.”

The study found that immigrant participation in the food stamp program is hampered by a climate of fear and confusion over rules for eligibility. This translates into thousands of them being deprived of food stamp benefits while the city loses millions in federal funding.

Franco DiCicco, 47, a clinical nutritionist born in Italy and a New Yorker since he was 3, is a case in point.

DiCicco, a U.S. citizen, lives in Fresh Meadows, Queens, with his wife – a legal immigrant from Venezuela – and their 18-month-old son, who was born in New York. This year, a truck rear-ended DiCicco’s car while he was driving to work and he sustained several fractures and torn ligaments. He hasn’t been able to go back to work.

“I needed help very badly and on April 1 I applied for food stamps. The prescreening went very well,” said DiCicco, who still wears braces on his neck, one leg and two fingers. Then they gave him another appointment and confusion ensued. “They asked me for my wife’s green card and my son’s birth certificate. I made copies and faxed the documents to them. More than three months went by and nothing happened.”

It wasn’t until he got in touch with Betsy Pabn, director of the Food Stamps Program at the nonprofit Sunnyside Community Services in Queens, that the bureaucracy began to move again.

“She got on the phone and talked to some people in the food stamps office, told me what to do and where to go,” DiCicco said on Thursday. “And today I’m finally getting my card.”

Because half of all New Yorkers live in an immigrant household and immigrant entrepreneurs are a driving force in the city’s economy, their access to food stamps concerns the entire city, the study points out.

Yet, 83,205 noncitizens eligible for food stamps are not getting them. Legal immigrants (the undocumented do not qualify) were only 77% as likely as citizens to register in the program.

The report recommends intensive language-appropriate outreach and assistance in the city’s immigrant communities to help address the hunger crisis. It stresses – and Gioia agrees – that getting more immigrants to enroll would not only benefit them, but also the city.

“Getting this right is important,” Gioia said. “It is a moral obligation to New Yorkers, and it gives the city a welcome injection of federal dollars.”

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