Fighting Hunger on the West Side

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Local food bank sees 50-percent increase in cases since 2008

By Gavin Aronsen

Hunger is on the rise on the Upper West Side.

Volunteers at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger prepared for one of its busiest periods of the year on a recent Tuesday, as they managed their final delivery of food just before Thanksgiving week.

The holidays are one of the busiest times at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

The campaign runs an emergency food-pantry program located at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew on West 86th Street. Last month, representatives from the food pantry said that it saw a 31-percent rise in people from the same period a year before to more than 8,200 this year, and this month is expected to be even busier.

Since the recession in 2008 there has been a nearly 50-percent increase in the number of people seeking food at the pantry, according to Doreen Wohl, the program’s executive director.

“People’s need for food is all year round,” Wohl said. “The wider community only wakes up to this at Thanksgiving and at Christmastime.”

Most weeks, the pantry is open Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, with Tuesdays reserved for receiving new shipments of food. But next week, it will be open Monday through Wednesday and closed Thanksgiving Day and Friday so volunteers and staff have time to spend with their families.

People in need of assistance come to the pantry once a month, where they are given their choice of healthy foods to last about three days. It is disbursed based on a point system designed to provide a proper balance among the different food groups.

A chef nutritionist, Mark D’Alessandro, runs a 12-week cooking course to teach those interested how to prepare meals, who in turn help others who come to the pantry in need.

Stewart Desmond, the program’s development director, said despite perceptions that the economy has taken a turn for the better, the need for food among low-income people continues to grow, even on the generally well-off Upper West Side.

He predicted that next week would be “overwhelming” but that staff and volunteers would be prepared.

The pantry, one of the city’s largest emergency food programs, relies on city, state and federal funding as well as cash and in-kind donations from community members and religious organizations. Still, Wohl said the demand for food has overwhelmed the program’s budget.

Shirley Brevard, a 15-year volunteer with the program, said she expects to see lines stretching a block away to Broadway next week as eager families hope to receive Thanksgiving turkeys.

“You’re going to hear them asking tomorrow,” said Carrie Fair, who has volunteered at the pantry for the past 12 years.

Although Wohl said the resources do not exist to provide everyone a turkey, she said staff and volunteers are working to ensure that healthy meals will be available next week for those in need.

Said Brevard, who is used to seeing wall-to-wall lines even on typical days, “We don’t really disappoint them.”

“Next week is going to be crazy, but we love it,” she said.

Wohl said the pantry is typically busier around Thanksgiving than Christmas because more places tend to provide food assistance for the latter holiday.

For more information, visit www.wscah.org.

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