Joel Berg, Executive Director, NYC Coalition Against Hunger

by Andrew Piccone

Tell me about your job.

I’m executive director; June will mark my 10th anniversary here. I report to our board of directors, but basically I’m in charge of running the day-to-day operations of our organization. I manage our staff, I manage our Americorps programs — together with them we have a few dozen people. I’m the chief media person, the chief public spokesman. It’s a lot of work but it’s all worth it. The coalition has been around since 1983. Soup kitchens have existed in New York City for at least 100 to 150 years — they’re also called missions. They deal mostly with skid row, stereotypical down-and-out and if I may use the non-P.C. term ‘bums’: the homeless, the substance abusing, people who are sort of on the margins of society, and there were a few dozen of those agencies in New York. The idea of a food pantry, where people get boxed and canned food from their neighbors, didn’t even exist in New York or America until the 1980s. Today there are over 1200 soup kitchens and food pantries in New York, nationwide there are over 40,000. The NYCCAH started in the Reagan era, when the economy and our social systems were failing and it was an umbrella group to represent the interest of those kitchens and pantries, and we still do that, and we do a lot more today as well.

Who typically benefits from these services?

There’s some overlap between soup kitchens and food pantries, but generally the population served by them varies. The soup kitchens have some families, some children, but mostly are adults, a little more male than female and they tend to be the poorest of the poor. They are disproportionately represented by homeless people who are tenuously housed or don’t have their own cooking facilities. Food pantries, which are the far more prevalent agency in New York City tend to serve families, more women than men, 95% of the people who go there are not homeless, but poor. They’re all across the racial spectrum, all across the age spectrum, the only thing that really unites them is that they’re poor. It’s people who are poor, who were at the edge of poverty and now, thanks to the recession, are poorer. Minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, that adds up to $14,000 a year full time, more than some New Yorkers would spend on one week’s ski trip. The 57 billionaires in New York City have as much money as a minimum wage salary of 13 million people.

What got you involved in hunger outreach?

I’ve been involved in government, politics and public service since I was 14. I worked in Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, and unlike a lot of the candidates I’ve worked for, he won. Before that I already had a background in policy work in what became the Americorps national service program, so I went to work for his administration in the start up of that program, and that led me to hunger work in the Department of Agriculture. I served in Washington there for eight years as a political appointee and when the administration ended I came back to New York and, basically, here I am.

What is the state of hunger in New York City in 2011?

It’s miserable. Over the past few years the situation went from bad to worse to worser. We had a major poverty and hunger crisis before the downturn, the downturn only added fuel to the fire. The situation would have been far worse without the economic recovery bill. I know it’s trendy for everyone to dump all over that and say it didn’t work, but I don’t think that’s factually true, particularly in the hunger realm. Between the stimulus bill and the natural increase of the food stamps program, because it goes up when the economy is bad, that’s the only life raft New Yorkers have had to survive the tidal wave of pain. Without that it would have been even more miserable. We’ve been able to prevent Great Depression style hunger here, it’s still bad, but a lot better than it would have been because we have these safety net programs in place. If these safety net programs are further eviscerated, we are going to see Depression style hunger, Darfur style hunger, Calcutta style hunger happening here in New York.

Hunger today is not people starving in the streets, but it’s people choosing between food and rent. It’s parents going without food to feed their children, and the greatest irony of all is that people are buying cheaper food that is less nutritious and more filling. People are buying chips, soda, whatever they can to fill their bellies. Now I don’t think the answer is restricting what people can buy. They tried to ban purchasing soda using food stamps, the USDA hasn’t ruled on it yet, but I think it would be a grave mistake, micromanaging the lives of poor people. People aren’t eating crapily because they don’t know better, which is the idea of the yuppies who want to place this on them, they’re eating junk because they can’t afford the more nutritious food or it doesn’t exist in their neighborhoods. There are many parts of New York where there are no healthy options. There are 1.4 million New Yorkers who can’t afford enough food. People like Michael Pollan, who I agree with on many issues, argue that food prices should be higher and that will bring justice to the food system. I say they’re out to lunch, so to speak. If 1.4 million people in New York can’t afford food as it is, the answer isn’t raising food prices, it’s figuring out other ways to keep family farmers on the land, how to make food more available, how to allow people to earn a living. Raising prices on poor people who can’t afford food now is a further recipe for disaster.

What is Mayor Bloomberg doing right? What is he doing wrong?

Generally he is doing right with most things relating to public health and generally doing wrong with most things relating to poverty. I disagree with him fiercely on his proposal to micromanage the lives of poor people. But other things, like the trans-fat ban, we supported strongly because it’s not picking on poor people, it’s widespread. We support the city’s efforts to allow people to buy more food at farmer’s markets using food stamps, that’s great. We support public information campaigns on soda and salt. Not mandating what people do but sending a message to everyone. That being said, doing these public health efforts where you’re addressing poverty and hunger you’re going to have a very limited impact. The biggest reason people are consuming these unhealthy things is that they don’t have healthy alternatives. We’re one of the few places in the United States where you still get electronic fingerprints from people before they can get food stamps. I know the mayor is proud of having different gun laws than Arizona, but he should think twice that we have similar social service policies. In Arizona you’re not fingerprinted to buy a Glock, but you are fingerprinted to get food stamps, just like in New York City. Governor Spitzer eliminated that policy in the rest of the state: it did not increase fraud; food stamp participation soared. It’s a case of stubbornness, getting the wrong advice and not trusting poor people. If AIG and Goldman Sacchs had 1/1000 of the restrictions that poor people have, we’d have a lot less financial crisis on Wall Street. The 46 states that don’t fingerprint have lower fraud rates and higher participation rates than the four states that do. The main reason behind poverty is inequality of wealth and lack of economic opportunity. The mayor has done nothing to address that.

Urban farming has become a trend in the last several years, how can this help?

It’s complicated. I think community farming is a helpful additive, but I think people who think this is a serious answer to structural and economic problems for 50 million Americans living with hunger don’t really understand the scope of the problem. Let me make it clear, my organization strongly supports community gardening and urban farming, we work with many different groups on this. But, for example, East New York, one of the poorest and hungriest parts of the city, has one of the most robust urban farming systems in New York. Even with the modernity of food production, nowhere in the United States is this a realistic solution for these problems. The foods that are being grown are not a diversity of foods, the volume can’t even come close to what people need, and growing seasons, even in Southern California or Florida they can’t do it. I mean, I like eating 12 months out of the year, not just when time sensitive foods are ripe. The other day I went by a community garden that was covered in snow after having eaten breakfast with berries from California and some other fruit from Chile. What I’m saying is that while there are definite problems with the international food system, there is this accepted response that all of that is evil and you should only eat local and it’s just not realistic. Many people who consider themselves locavores are eating a vast majority of food that is not local. A lot of what is perceived here as being local is not really local, it’s more regional. You get food at farmer’s markets from Long Island or New Jersey or the Finger Lakes region that had at least a few hours drive to get to its final destination. That carbon footprint kind of exceeds what I would call ‘local.’ Community gardens have a lot of positivity, it can bring so much to the city, to the neighborhood, they’re good things. They bring good. I’m not dumping on community supported agriculture in any way shape or form. We just want to send the nuanced message that it is not the solution to this problem. These are good, we should expand them, but we can’t fool ourselves that this is even close to realistic to solving these problems.

Andrew Piccone is a photographer in New York.