Elected Officials and Community Leaders Fight Against Food Insecurity with Town Hall

A local organization held a public town hall on Thursday to educate and garner support from community leaders in their fight against food insecurity.

Feeding Westchester Town Hall flyer

The sponsor of the event, Feeding Westchester, is a decades-old non-profit combating hunger throughout the county. The organization primarily operates food pantries that serve over 200,000 people each month. The 50-person staff is bolstered by 4,000 volunteers and 10,000 donors who fund their mission. At least 88% of this funding is budgeted into programs and services directly benefiting the community.

For many of our neighbors, the availability of affordable, nutritious food is elemental to their emotional and physical survival. It is within our power to not only feed those in need, but to provide them with resources and hope for better days ahead

A town hall with a mission

panel speakers
Lucria Ortiz, Karen C. Erren, Kelly Chiarella and MaryAnn Watkins – credit: Feeding Westchester

The event at the Riverfront Library on June 29th saw over 40 attendees participate to learn about food insecurity and its potential solutions. Lucria Ortiz, CEO of one of Feeding Westchester’s 300 partner organizations, Yonkers YMCA, hosted the event. She stood alongside a panel of experts including CEO of Feeding Westchester Karen C. Erren, Kelly Chiarella from the Yonkers’ Office for the Aging, and MaryAnn Watkins who is a housing advocate with Westchester Disabled on the Move.

To better understand the hunger crisis, Feeding Westchester recently commissioned the lauded, Boston Consulting Group, for a sophisticated systems analysis. The resulting report analyzing “the need, supply, and capacity” of hunger relief systems suggested a multi-pronged plan of action.

Areas in Yonkers with food insecurity

The town hall event began with an eye-opening statistic that even in the affluent county of Westchester, two in five households are food insecure. And unfortunately, the largest concentration of people affected is within Yonkers. This issue even cuts across various neighborhoods and demographics across the city. Moreover, 66% of those in need rely on food pantries as their main source of food.

The way to address this need, the report suggests, is summarized into distinct initiatives.

First, to engage the community with regular “listening sessions” in an effort to better understand their needs and how to meet them. Notable findings so far have been that recipients of this aid desire more fresh food and vegetables, and that even just a one bad experience at a food distribution, like receiving expired food, may have a lasting negative impact on the perception of the pantry.

Next, identify the highest-need areas to deliver additional assistance and expand their capacity and distribution capabilities.

Finally, make more fresh and nutritious food available from local retailers. Through partners like Stop&Shop, the Retail Recovery program helps to prevent food waste-including produce-by directing it to those in need.

Further details on this report and its suggestions can be found in the town hall’s slideshow presentation. You can view this presentation in full by clicking here.

A call to action

The event also highlighted a petition campaign to “strengthen federal nutrition programs.” The petition, which transmits a pre-canned response to congressional representatives and senators, pleads that “healthy food is a human right.” It does so to persuade the federal government into expanding the 2023 reauthorization of the Farm Bill.

Unbeknownst to many, the Farm Bill actually encompasses various agriculture, nutrition, conservation, and forestry policies. This includes vital programs like SNAP and TEFAP. The state-administered SNAP program provides food vouchers to almost three million New Yorkers. The petition calls for SNAP to expand and better serve individuals like seniors, lawful immigrants, and those with prior drug-related convictions. Furthermore, it requests additional funding to The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). For example, budgeting $10 million a year in a grant program to “increase the self-reliance of communities in providing for the food needs of the communities.”

You can sign the petition to expand food assistance programs via the 2023 Farm Bill here: https://p2a.co/1cmMcte

Policy-makers on the problem

Present in the town hall crowd were a handful of elected officials from various levels of government-including one who will vote on the Farm Bill.

City Council member from the 1st district and Westchester Board of Legislators candidate, Shanae Williams, was grateful that the event let people know how much help people need. If elected to the BOL, she hopes to increase partnerships in the area to “close those gaps” between the the parts of the county that need the most help.

Jamaal Bowman speaking
Jamaal Bowmancredit: Feeding Westchester

Also noting both the great need, and great wealth, within the third largest city in the state, was U.S. Congressman Jamaal Bowman. Asserting that “food insecurity is a life and death crisis,” he linked the issue as a cause of both education and public safety challenges. Like Williams, he affirmed that abolishing this “system of inequality” requires coordination between city, county, state, and federal governments.

Understanding this bipartisan issue was Republican council-member and mayoral hopeful, Anthony Merante. He observed that “with rising inflation and high rents many are struggling to get by and can use a helping hand.”

If you’re interested in helping the fight against hunger and food insecurity, or need a helping hand yourself, visit Feeding Westchester’s website here: https://feedingwestchester.org/

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