Hunger a 'women's issue,' Food Bank For NYC's chief says

Ms. Wilson (L), with Rachel Perez, Food Bank For New York City’s Financial Coach
Source: Food Bank For New York City

In New York, approximately 2.6 million people experience difficulty affording food for themselves and their families. Many residents must choose between paying for food or paying for necessities such as rent, utilities, transportation, health care, child care and medicine, according to the Food Bank For New York City.

With food prices on the rise, the lack of basics have reached what the organization calls crisis levels, and the people most affected are women.

The organization says 80 percent of supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP) recipients are female, 22 percent of all NYC women are living below the poverty level and one out of six women in New York City rely on emergency food programs. It's a void the organization's head is seeking to fill.

"We're in a place of embracing where hunger really is," said Margarette Purvis, president and chief executive officer of the Food Bank For New York City. "Hunger is primarily a woman's issue."

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"Moms and their kids, it's the definition of the most vulnerable," Purvis told CNBC in an interview. Women who are at the bottom, they are going to end up at a food pantry line, it's a reality for a lot of people."

Purvis assessment dovetailed with findings from the National Women's Law Center, which found in a 2014 report that nearly 18 million women across the U.S. lived in poor conditions. Citing U.S. Census Bureau data, the NWLC said female poverty rates were "substantially above" those of men.

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More than just food

A number of celebrities have answered the call to address women's poverty, with mixed results. Last month, actress Gwyneth Paltrow was widely derided for taking a vow to live on the budget afforded by food stamps to the average family and only managing to last four days before indulging with chicken, fresh vegetables and a bag of black licorice.

However, food insecurity is only one part of the problem, according to the Food Bank, adding that hunger is directly linked to financial stability and security.

Households with greater financial security and financial management abilities are less likely to have trouble feeding themselves. The organization, which pulled in more than $42 million in various contributions in its latest financial year, goes directly into high-need areas to identify the most vulnerable, particularly those with school-age children.

Toward that end, the organization partners with Citibank to address the nexus between hunger and financial instability. The partnership allows the Food Bank to offer assorted services that include debt management and reduction, household and food budgeting, and household budgeting across the New York region.

There are currently 550 people utilizing these services, with 43 percent of them being single mothers.

"These mothers do two things faithfully," said Purvis. "They go to work and they pick their kids up from school. Being able to meet them there [at the schools] has made a critical difference for us."

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The organization procures, stores and distributes more than 60 million pounds of healthy food every year, including fresh produce.

There is a 90,000-square-foot warehouse in the Bronx that dispatches tractor-trailers from the warehouse five days a week to a citywide network of approximately 1,000 schools and member programs. These include food pantries, soup kitchens, senior centers and after-school programs, according to the Food Bank.

Getting 'to the core' of the problem

The organization's services run the gamut, and even include tax preparation services. Purvis adds that it's part of a strategy to address the broader problems that affect the poor.

"It's not about food alone, it's about poverty," said Purvis. "Last year we helped prepare 85,000 tax returns, getting back $141 million in refunds. If we can help people get off our lines we are meeting our mission."

Ansantu Wilson, a single mother of three young children, has struggled to pay rent in her $1,550, two-bedroom Bronx apartment and keep up with bills.

"You can't afford the apartment you're in, but you can't leave, either," Wilson said. "You can't get a single room, they won't take you and your kids."

Despite working two jobs as a home health aide, Wilson found that her $25,000 yearly salary never quite stretched far enough. While SNAP benefits helped provide food, it wasn't enough to feed her family sufficiently. Wilson soon found herself cutting meal portions at the end of each month in order to get by.

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Yet Wilson, who sought help at the Food Bank's for tax-preparation purposes, got that and more. A NYC food bank financial counselor, Rachel Perez, helped Wilson take charge of her financial life.

"Right there she checked my credit, and we started working on my credit," said Wilson, who was keen to repair her financial history in order to be eligible for low-income housing.

Perez works with women like Wilson on a day-to-day basis and says that unless the core issue of financial stability is addressed the problem will not be fixed. "You can give families SNAP benefits, but if you're not teaching them how to manage their money, you're not fixing the problem," Perez said.

"You're not getting to the core of what's affecting them."