“I can’t make ends meet,” said a retired military man who is on disability, waiting in a long line of cars for a drive-thru food pantry at NYSUT Thursday morning
A young, newly single mom of two young children who was in line said she can’t earn enough to support her family on minimum wage. She lives with her mom, pays her some rent, and works nights at Dunkin Donuts, earning $200-$300 a week, depending on how many hours she gets.
Cars began lining up at 7 a.m. for the 10 a.m. food distribution, held on a rainy Thursday morning at NYSUT headquarters in conjunction with the Regional Food Bank of Northern New York, Catholic Charities, and the Capital District Area Labor Federation. Close to 1,000 bags stuffed with food were packed and given out, totaling eight tons of food. Items included chicken, potatoes, milk, cereal, fresh squash and lettuce, carrots, yogurt, sour cream, and string cheese.
“It’s been good (to do this), but it’s also been sad, seeing so many people still struggling for food,” said Seth Cohen, president of the Capital District ALF, as he held several big bags of bright orange carrots. ALF has been helping out with 10-12 food drives each month in an 11-county area since COVID-19 hit.
COVID-19, job loss, skyrocketing housing prices, rising food costs, and continuously rising gas prices have all contributed to many families not having enough food to eat.
Wearing waterproof boots, NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer J. Philippe Abraham worked the line packing food, saying the NYSUT Cares program is all about “supporting communities in which we live and work. It’s important to be helpful; always be helpful.”
“This is the first time for me seeing this,” said Wayne White, NYSUT’s new director of social justice. He said he never expected so many volunteers to show up and help. “Charity is in every major belief system,” he said.
Union sisters and brothers came to help on the rainy morning, including Christopher DePoalo, Local 301 IUE-CWA, who said his father’s desire to help those less fortunate was passed down to him.
“This is like a grand slam. I never saw this many volunteers,” said Rabbit Riley, vice president of the Branch 358 letter carriers who came out to help on his 75th birthday. He’s been assisting at food drives for the past year and a half.
“When you know better, you do better,” said Jolene DiBrango, NYSUT executive vice president, who loaded cars with food.
A woman in line said she lost her food stamps because she is back in college, learning so she can get a better job. She’s studying to be a coder, and she has an excellent GPA, she said, grinning broadly. Right now, she needs help with food.
Sister Betsy Van Deusen, director of community partnerships with Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany, said even people getting food stamps are unable to make the allotment last. A recent raise in the dollar amount for food stamps is the first one in decades — but it’s not enough.
At one time, a family could get by with food stamps, supplemented by items from a food pantry, Van Deusen said. Rising food costs over the years have meant a family has only been able to make food stamps and food pantry items last two-thirds of the month.
“Mass food distribution is filling a gap,” she said. Food provided to those in need comes from Regional Food Bank of Northern New York, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Nourish New York, a program that was initially set up during COVID to keep farmers going during the pandemic when they lost their school and restaurant business. The program reroutes surplus agriculture products to food banks, and was made a permanent program last month by Gov. Kathy Hochul.
ALF executive director Mark Emanatian, a regular at food distribution efforts throughout the region, said last year 127,000 people were served; this year it has been well over 200,000.
Beef prices have gone up 20 percent; and eggs have gone up 12 percent, Emanatian said. The cost of living has gone up 6.7 percent just in the last year, according to Consumer Price Index.
“Rents in Troy have doubled in four years,” he said. When people can’t make ends meet, “the first thing that goes is food.”