By Mara Zepeda
When it comes time for Cammise Yorker to say what she is thankful for she takes a deep breath. “I’m thankful for my mom. She is my best friend,” she says. “I haven’t been working and my mom’s been taking care of me and my two kids.” She bursts into tears, and so do the fourteen other women in the room.
Lunch is served at the St. John’s Bread and Life women’s group in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The women gather here each week to support one another, to share stories of triumph and tragedy, to get advice and to socialize. They rise, hold hands, say grace and then express their gratitude: a new grandchild on the way, recovery after a long illness, the promise of their own apartment, a week of sobriety.
And then they dig in. Each woman has contributed a dish to the lunch, and the food is abundant: baked ziti, turkey, ham, salad, macaroni, rice, collard greens, garlic bread, apples. Hot sauce and mustard emerges from purses. The homemade fried chicken disappears.
Most of the women in the room receive food stamps. They are the human face behind the recent Department of Agriculture statistics that point to an alarming spike in hunger. Almost 15% of the country now faces some food insecurity; the highest number on record since the data was first tracked starting in 1995. In the last year, Brooklyn has seen a 33% change in the number of people who receive food stamps. More than one in five people in the borough get them, including Yorker.
Each month she receives $480 in food stamps for her and her two sons. In March of this year Yorker, 33, was laid off after working for seven years at a Manhattan home for the mentally disabled. Even when she was employed, her income didn’t cover basic expenses, so although her allowance has increased, being on food stamps wasn’t entirely new. Still, she misses her work. “It was the best job I’d ever had,” she says. She was lucky enough to live at home, in the house where she was born. Her mother charges her rent. “I didn’t sit on my behind,” says Yorker. She cashed out her retirement savings and just received certification as a medical assistant. Now she spends her days sending out resumes.
The staff at Bread and Life has seen a staggering rise in the number of people who call on them for food assistance. Eighty five percent more clients visited the food pantry then last year. The Single Stop program, which processes food stamp applications, has served over 5,500 clients this year, a rise of 67%. In response to the economic downturn, Congress passed legislation that increased the minimum monthly food stamp allowance to $200, an increase that has meant survival for many. For Gilberto Santiago, it is an improvement over the $28 he previously received. “It’s kinda’ enough for myself,” he says.
Carmen Rob, supervisor of the food pantry, says she is surprised by the new clients who come through her door. Many have never received food assistance before. Some had children in private school, or jobs in the financial industry, or were so ashamed that they refused to come out of their car. “They are embarrassed. They almost feel like they’re begging for food,” she says. Rob can’t stop thinking about the young woman, recently unemployed, who lives out of her car. “I gave her a bag of microwavable food,” she says. “I try to tell them that we all need help sometimes, and that I could just as easily be sitting in their position.” Janette Mercedes, coordinator of the Single Stop program, says she’s noticed an increase in the number of young people—recent college or high-school graduates—applying for assistance. Her full-time staff of three is having a hard time keeping up with all these new clients. “We are really stretching ourselves thin,” she says.
Back at the women’s group luncheon the meal has ended. What happens next is the artful, efficient process of wrapping the leftovers for the women to take home. The standard method is to sandwich a heap of food between two paper plates, and then swaddle them with a generous sheet of tinfoil. The women crowd around the table and balance two or three packages in their arms, along with a bag of produce from the food pantry.
Cammise Yorker is acutely aware of how differently things might have turned out. “Without food stamps, my kids and I would walk around going to different pantries. And without my mom, I know for a fact I’d be in a shelter…if not for the grace of God.” A woman nearby nods her head. “I was always hungry, and miserable.” For today at least, with her tower of tin foil plates, she is not.