The annual report, which surveys food insecurity issues throughout the five boroughs and the state, concluded that despite an overall reduction in hunger, many families are still struggling to put food on the table.
“There’s an epidemic of working hunger still in America and in New York,” said Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America. “There are some signs of hope, but economic recovery is a long way away for most working-class people.”
According to the report, 42 million people nationwide live in households that can’t afford enough food, including 16 million people who work. In New York State, 3 million people struggle with hunger, including 1 million who work.
In New York City, 1.4 million people struggle with hunger, including 400,000 children.
In Queens, more than 16 percent of children, roughly one in six, live in food-insecure homes. Another 10 percent of seniors in Queens struggle with hunger issues.
Berg attributed much of the struggle to stagnant wages and rising costs. Hunger Free America proposed a three-pronged plan to end hunger, including creating more jobs, raising the minimum wage and ensuring an “adequate safety net.”
“The cost of living just outstrips what people are earning. If your expenses are more than your wages, you’re going to have a problem,” Berg said. “You cannot pay your landlord less or you get kicked out. You cannot pay Con Ed less or you get your lights turned off. You can buy a little less food and less healthy food.”
In addition to raising the federal minimum wage, Berg said he wants to ensure the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a federal program more commonly known as food stamps, continues to help the needy.
He called on president-elect Donald Trump to “go against” House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has proposed slashing SNAP benefits.
“The speaker’s position is that somehow if you take food away from hungry people, that will make them less hungry,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Berg also asked Trump to make hunger reduction a priority in his administration.
“To make America great again, we have to ensure that all of our people eat,” he said.
Berg, who announced the results of the report in Flushing last Wednesday, wanted to dispel any stereotypes about SNAP recipients. He noted that out of the top 10 states whose residents received food stamps from the government, eight voted for Trump in the last election.
“We’re just pointing out that there are a lot of stereotypes that they are just for blue states or inner cities,” Berg said. “In fact, some of the places with the highest rates of need are white, rural areas in the south.”
Pilisam Balli, a Bronx resident and SNAP recipient, spoke about his experience dealing with food insecurity issues. Balli, a college graduate, is still looking for a job while his wife works. Together, they’re struggling to provide for their new family, including their 15-month-old son.
“Food is expensive. On top of rent and all the bills, you need to put food on the table,” Balli said. “But the SNAP program really helped us to hold our heads high.”
Balli is raising his young son at home in addition to volunteering at soup kitchens and applying for jobs daily. He said the notion that SNAP recipients are lazy is wrong, because even some people who work multiple jobs just don’t make enough.
“I see it as a leverage, something to help me get out of a situation,” he said.
When his wife first proposed for the family to go on food stamps, Balli said he felt embarrassed and upset.
“I felt embarrassed because I was too proud to acknowledge it,” he said. “But I had to face reality that I needed it.”
He implored the federal government to keep the SNAP program going and to ensure that hungry people, including those who work, have something to eat.
Part of having a strong safety net is ensuring service agencies have enough food to give. In the report, 24 percent of soup kitchens and food pantries in Queens said they don’t have enough food to meet the rising demand. More than 70 percent of those agencies reported an increase in the number of people they serve.
“I hope the president-elect, who grew up just a few miles from here, remembers the real needs of the people of Queens and New York,” Berg said, referring to the Jamaica Estates neighborhood where Trump lived. “We almost ended hunger entirely in the 1970s, and we can certainly do it in a place like Queens.”