A client signs in at the food pantry on Hanson Place in Fort Greene
As the rate of hunger in Brooklyn continues to rise, food pantries across Fort Greene and Clinton Hill are starting to see changes in the number and type of people using their services. “The area has changed a lot,” says Alexis George, Jr. an assistant at the Siloam Presbyterian pantry on Jefferson Avenue on the border of Clinton Hill and Bedford-Stuyvesant. “Now we’re seeing more diversity in the people we serve.” And one of the biggest changes, food volunteers note, is an increase in the number of Asian immigrants coming to the food pantries.
Asians make up 8% of Fort Greene’s population and food pantries across the neighborhood unanimously say they’re seeing more and more of them showing up to receive emergency food assistance. According to a 2013 study by the Asian American Federation, more than 20% of New York’s Chinese population lives in poverty. A whopping 30.5% Chinese residents above the age of 65 live below the poverty line, as opposed to the city average of 18.2%. And according to the 2010 census, Asians saw the highest growth in the percentage of population in New York City—jumping from 9% to more than 12%, a 31% increase in just ten years. In Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, the number of Asians jumped from 1,900 to 3,000 in that same time. Still, for neighborhoods that are more used to seeing rapid increases in their white populations, the change was unexpected and comes with its own challenges.
For one thing, says Sheila Coleman, Director of the food pantry at Brown Memorial church, “They all speak different languages.” Coleman says this is especially challenging when her staff needs to communicate complicated topics, like changes to policies and procedures at the pantry. Some of them “have a hard time understanding us, and we have a hard time understanding them,” she says.
Cheryl Murray, secretary of the Seventh Day Adventist food pantry on Hanson Street, agrees that the language barrier makes it nearly impossible to get detailed information or to make sure pantry policies are followed. “The way the pantry works is you’re only supposed to have one person come to collect from each household, but sometimes we see that more than one person will come. It’s hard—we don’t want to turn them away and we can’t tell them what the rules are. Even if we’re not sure we usually just let everyone go in.”
Clyde Semper, the pantry’s Director, acknowledges the difficulty but adds, “It’s really our problem. We’re the ones serving them and we don’t have the language skills.”
Olga Manns, Director of the Seventh Day Adventist food pantry in Fort Greene, says that no one on her staff speaks Cantonese or Mandarin, BUT her Asian clients are still able to get the food they need: “Generally, they will just point to what they like and we’ll get it for them,” she says.
An Asian client at Manns’ pantry, who wished to be identified as only as Ms. Zhang and spoke through a translator, agrees that the language barrier can be difficult, especially as it makes it harder for her to ask if certain items she needs are in stock. Sometimes she’ll swap food with other people at the pantry if she realizes there was something she was unable to ask for. Zhang is from the Guangdong province in China and speaks Cantonese. She has lived in the U.S. for more than 30 years, but she worked in a Chinese-owned clothing factory and so she never studied English. She’s a single mother of four, living in the public housing projects in Clinton Hill. Although her rent is low, she’s retired and her family has no income. She’s been coming to the pantry for two years.
For now, Brown Memorial’s Sheila Coleman says she’s going to start circulating a job description for a volunteer interpreter to help her pantry better serve its Asian clients.
Brooklyn Ink reporter Luna Liu served as a translator during interviews for this story.