New York Times, December 16, 2007: Hunger at the Holidays

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Unsettling, isn۪t it, to consider the possibility of hidden misery and scarcity in the New York suburbs, a landscape designed and maintained to project comfort and abundance? This is an age of apparent affluence, when even the implements of daily living homes, cars, even beverage cups and shopping carts have swelled to bursting, are bigger than big, the better to contain and carry all that we consume and have become. It seems hardly the time or place for empty stomachs and barren cupboards, especially at the holidays.

And yet hunger is real here, and growing.

A few statistics suffice to make the point. As Robin Finn wrote in this section last Sunday, food banks and food-rescue agencies on Long Island say demand for their services is up by 40 percent. Fran Leek, director of parish outreach at St. Hugh of Lincoln Church in Huntington Station for the last 12 years, said the need at her food pantry had risen 150 percent since she arrived; she now struggles to make her inventory of groceries stretch to help 350 families a month.

Government agencies are witnessing the rising need. Suffolk County۪s Department of Social Services helped 12,800 people receive food stamps in 2004 and 20,850 in 2007. It۪s hard to tell how much of that increase is due to increased poverty, and how much to the county۪s increased efforts to bring more people onto the rolls.

Government benefits remain limited. Across the country, about 800,000 people on food stamps, many of them elderly or disabled, must survive on a minimum benefit of $10 per month. That amount that has not changed in 30 years. Some suggest that many who are eligible for food stamps simply don۪t bother to get them, because the paltry sums aren۪t worth the considerable effort of applying. Private charitable agencies, meanwhile, are filling the gap for families who earn too much to qualify for aid under punishingly low federal and state income thresholds.

In the New York region, the problem of poverty and hungry is linked inextricably to the shortage of affordable housing. Across the region last year, the number of households paying 50 percent or more of their income on housing, including taxes and utilities, rose by 41,000, to more than 400,000. When winter comes, and the cost of heating is added to the fixed costs of housing and gasoline, many a family budget is stretched to the breaking point. It is impossible to economize on a mortgage payment or the rent. But it is always possible to save a few dollars by going hungry.

Advocates for the poor say there are simple things the government can do to help the hungry, like keeping social-service centers open in the evening, as Nassau County does one night a week, to allow more working families to apply for food stamps. Although the counties and New York State may be constrained by stingy federal guidelines and dwindling aid, they should still redouble their efforts to make sure everyone who is eligible for aid actually receives it.

Meanwhile a wide array of nonprofit agencies has mobilized to meet the growing need, to serve “the pockets of poor,” as Ms. Leek put it, who are hidden within the folds of Long Island۪s conspicuous wealth.

They deserve your support.

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