By Alex Davidson
One in five children in Queens staves off hunger by using the borough’s soup kitchens and food pantries, but Mayor Bloomberg has proposed eliminating all funding for the city’s free food programs in a last-ditch bid to balance the budget.
The Hunger Action of New York state, which includes direct food providers, advocates and other individuals dedicated to ending hunger, studied 175 free food outlets in Queens. It found that in 2002 nearly 100,000 children in the borough used a soup kitchen or food pantry.
“One of the unfortunate trends this past year has been that people have been forced to rely on food programs,” said Susannah Pasquantonio, spokeswoman for the network. “The majority of people using soup kitchens and food pantries are children.”
The large number of children at risk has occurred as their parents struggle to pay both high rent and food bills while working at minimum wage jobs, Pasquantonio said.
One of those parents, Delores, a resident of Long Island City, has been visiting Steinway Child and Family Services Inc. once a month for seven months to help feed her family.
The mother, who sometimes brings her 16-year-old daughter Qwaneeka to the pantry at 41-36 27th St., said she has been on disability for several months and cannot afford to buy enough food. Delores said she is hoping to be admitted into a program where she could take her GED exam, then get a degree to work with computers, and eventually have enough money to provide for her daughter.
“Sometimes I get really low on canned goods,” Delores said. She stressed that she uses the food as a supplement to feed herself and her daughter.
Unfortunately, Dolores is not the only mother in Queens who uses local food pantries to help feed her children — a process that could get harder if Bloomberg’s contingency budget goes into effect.
Census data from 2000 show that there are about 509,000 children under the age of 18 living in Queens, which means more than one fifth — or 100,000 — depend on the borough’s emergency food programs, Pasquantonio said. Queens’ total population of 2.2 million.
Pasquantonio said the network measures hunger in Queens by examining the number of requests from food pantries and soup kitchens for meals.
This year the number of children going to free food outlets has risen, she said.
Under the mayor’s contingency plan unveiled last week, Pasquantonio said, the city’s $7.7 million Emergency Food Assistance Program would be axed, eliminating more than 8 million meals provided to children, senior citizens and the working poor. The proposed $1 billion in overall cuts come as the mayor tries to close a $3.8 billion budget gap for fiscal year 2004.
Steven Jerome McCadney, director of Steinway Child and Family Services, said his facility has seen a 45 percent increase in demand for food from the pantry since the Sept. 11 terror attacks. He said the program has been adapted to accommodate the large number of children in need.
“We have created a safe space for children when they come here,” said McCadney, whose pantry distributes food within 15 minutes of patrons’ arrival. “That includes our high-tech playground with a big-screen TV, games and matted floors.”
Among the many visitors to Steinway Monday, one mother who wished to remain anonymous said she has been going there for three months and uses the food to prepare meals for her 10-year-old daughter. Another mother, who also did not want to give her name, said she uses the food to feed her daughter’s two children and one son.
McCadney said Steinway distributes more than 18 tons of food per year to all people in need regardless of their residential status. He said his staff also encourages recipients to prepare nutritious meals and use safe cooking practices.
“People need to feed their children and make sure they have a wholesome, nutritious diet,” McCadney said. His facility distributes food to people in a waiting-room setting after they sign-in with administrators.
Pasquantonio said the problem was complicated by a lack of participation among borough schoolchildren in federal free lunch and breakfast programs. She said at least 20 percent of students in Queens are not enrolled in school lunch programs, which provides free or reduced-cost meals to children depending on their families’ incomes.
“Federal nutrition programs could help end hunger if they were properly utilized,” said Pasquantonio who found people do not actively pursue entitlements because of a negative stigma attached to them or because they do not know they are eligible for the programs. “Most people have access to get food but not the means.”
Paul Rose, a spokesman for the city Department of Education, said the Office of School Food and Nutrition Services serves more than 810,000 meals daily in public and private schools. He said the city provides meals to children through various services, including the After School Hours program, the Living for the Young Family through Education program, the Summer Food Service program and the Women, Infants and Children program.
Under the federal programs, no part of the food cost is billed to the child, parent or guardian. Rose said the balance of any cost not covered by reimbursement is charged to the district, school or sponsor.
Pasquantonio said parents earning $5.15 per hour, which is currently the federal minimum wage, have struggled to provide adequate amounts of food to their children.
She said the problem in Queens is that one in four children lives in poverty, which translates to 123,000, or 27 percent of the total number of children in the borough.
She said 350,000 people in Queens County live in poverty, which is defined by the federal government as an income level of $9,000 per year. Unfortunately, Pasquantonio said, the under-utilization of existing programs makes it hard to justify increases in funding for new initiatives.
In the meantime, food providers like McCadney and his staff at Steinway continue to fill gaps for parents trying to make ends meet and feed their children at the same time. McCadney said he will keep distributing food to the growing number of people who are in need, most of whom are families.
“Parents come here with their children, but they also come here with their neighbors,” McCadney said. “We try to support a climate where people can maintain their dignity.”
Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156