“A Seat at the Table”: New Haven Activists Fight Food Insecurity
Kimberly Hart and her son didn’t have enough to eat. Unemployed since 2013, Hart has depended on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—colloquially called SNAP, or food stamps—to feed herself and her 15-year-old son, Arthur.
She became a food policy activist, starting with a photo campaign by Witnesses to Hunger, a Philadelphia-based organization that inspires direct action among low-income parents and caregivers. She put a picture of Arthur at dinnertime on public display; in it, he stares at the camera, with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a bowl of ramen noodles, and a Solo cup of water. He’s quoted in the caption: “Really, Mom, no meat?”
The two of them live in a multiple-occupancy home in the Dixwell neighborhood of New Haven. Technically, the area doesn’t qualify as a food desert (for that classification, at least 33 percent of the local population needs to be more than one mile away from a supermarket in an urban area). But Hart and many of her neighbors still struggle to make ends meet: They are among the 400,000 Connecticut residents and 45.4 million American residents reliant on food stamps.
Food insecurity is an urgent issue both locally and federally. Community groups, food banks, and other local organizations are pressed to supply resources for the poor in cities across the country. Hart and others like her testify at the state and national level, detailing their daily challenges so policymakers learn how their decisions affect people’s lives.
“If I can tell you that this policy isn’t working,” Hart said, “then now we have a conversation going. I believe that if you don’t have a seat at the table, then bring your own chair.”
I took one look at Hart’s nearby food options, and the limitations were readily apparent. At the corner of Sherman Avenue and Whalley Avenue sits Sam’s Food Store, a deli that boasts a three-piece chicken-biscuit combo, jumbo shrimp, and Krispy Krunchy chicken sandwich on the images in its display windows. Across the street is a Mobil gas station and minimart. A Best Gas gas station stands farther down the block facing a KFC. The next block features two pizzerias, a Dunkin Donuts, and the L&A Mini Mart.
Minore’s Market is a four-minute walk from the Sherman-Whalley Avenue intersection. The larger Stop & Shop is only eight minutes away on foot. But Minore’s Market primarily features frozen vegetables and meats, which are less nutritious than fresh produce and cuts because of the freezing and canning processes. What’s more, Minore’s Market’s selection of fresh produce is rather limited; a lot of the food I found in that section was already a couple of days past its sell-by date.
Stop & Shop is a pricier option for the food insecure. Nature’s Promise Organic baby spinach and green beans will cost you ten bucks, and that’s when they’re on sale. Joy Johannes, the New Haven Food System Director, informed me that a single household receives about 198 dollars a month in food stamp benefits. Fifty dollars per week only goes so far.
New Haven residents are particularly afflicted by a lack of access to healthier foods. The 2017 “State of Hunger in New Haven” report found that 22 percent of the city’s residents are food insecure, compared to a Connecticut rate of 12 percent. In New Haven’s lowest-income neighborhoods, one in three adults is food insecure. Dr. Marlene B. Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity and a professor at the University of Connecticut, pointed out that class continues to be a fundamental factor linking food security to health concerns.
Connecticut has seen the number of lower-paying jobs, particularly in the service sector, grow by the tens of thousands. Bernard Beaudreau, CEO of the Connecticut Food Bank, contends that this trend does not help the food insecure. “Those jobs,” he told The Politic, “their median wage is only about 21,000 dollars a year, 50 percent of the overall median. That is not enough to live here, buy good food, pay bills.”
New Haven has taken steps to address food insecure residents’ distress. The city’s Food Policy Council is a voluntary advisory board of 11 members that the Board of Alders and the mayor appoint. The Council also has a list of affiliate member groups, including the Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center, CitySeed, and the Yale Sustainable Food Program, that provide input to relevant policymakers and coordinate on various outreach projects. CitySeed, for example, provides cooking classes so that younger generations can learn how to prepare more nutritious meals.
I asked Kimberly Hart how the community representatives fit into the Food Policy Council. Hart replied that it was her job to put a face to the numbers detailing low food access. She once told them about her experiences at food pantries and how difficult it is to get what she needed to finish out the month.
“If I want to get the good eggs, or the ribs, then I have to be one of the first 15 or 20 people there,” Hart explained. Going to food pantries requires strategic thinking. “If I’m at the pantry two hours before it opens, then I’m too late. This is rain, shine, sleet or snow. This is summer, winter, spring and fall. Some pantries open every third Tuesday or every fourth Wednesday. And sometimes I’ll forget. I’ll go to Varick [AME Zion Church Food Pantry and Soup Kitchen] and see no one in line as I’m rounding the corner. I missed it. Now what am I going to do?”
Hart and others wonder what the federal government will do. Depending on what the current administration and Congress decide regarding funding to WIC and SNAP, local networks of food banks, community organizations, soup kitchens, city governments, and activists may be further strained in their ability to help food insecure residents.
Beaudreau and those at the Connecticut Food Bank are very concerned that the current administration aims to cut federal benefits. “The cash dollar value of the benefits that are received by SNAP recipients in Connecticut is about 700 million dollars a year,” he explained. “The administration has proposed that we cut that by 25 percent over the next ten years. That would mean many billions of dollars lost in purchasing power.”
The cash value of all the food the Connecticut Food Bank and the other major state food bank, Foodshare, distribute is 70 million dollars, or ten percent of SNAP’s value. Maintaining a reasonable balance between how much the federal government can provide and how much local actors can provide is critical.
The “State of Hunger in New Haven” report shows that many community organizations already operate on shoestring budgets with limited human resources, mainly pools of committed volunteers. Variation between emergency food programs results in a dedicated yet fragmented system that can confuse food insecure residents. Understanding the many services available is even harder for people with low levels of education or limited English ability. The report found that Hispanic and Latinx New Haven communities especially bear the greatest burden of food insecurity.
“We’re vigilant about reminding our elected leaders that the SNAP program is absolutely essential,” Beaudreau insisted. “Unfortunately, we’re seeing the need for food assistance grow in Connecticut.”
Washington policymakers debate the benefits that SNAP participants should receive. While the massive federal program does have food eligibility guidelines, there are no rules outlining nutritional standards. Food insecurity advocates themselves may actually oppose such standards. A centralized set of standards could create a paternalistic and condescending relationship between the federal government and those in poverty. Creating nutritional guidelines may do nothing to address the perception of SNAP beneficiaries as freeloaders.
“People on both sides who normally agree with each other are fighting about this,” Schwartz said.
SNAP has other weaknesses. For New Haven residents surveyed in 2016, SNAP benefits ran out an average of ten days before the end of the month. For some, that time period can balloon to two to three weeks. SNAP operates with an income ceiling, meaning that if a recipient’s hourly wage increases by even a small amount, they could fail to qualify for food support.
“If I had a job, like at Walmart, then God forbid they give me a raise or they promote me to the head cashier!” Hart exclaimed. “I’d be getting 3 dollars more an hour, and the first thing they do is cut my SNAP benefits. So you know what I would do? I wouldn’t take the raise. I wouldn’t take the promotion. That shouldn’t be the case.
People also fear that other federal aid will be cut for low-income people who are food insecure. Even if their food assistance stays the same, their inability to pay for other utilities and expenses can affect how much food they can afford. Hart receives energy assistance for her heating bill, and therefore sees a reduction in her SNAP benefits. When the winter comes around, she and her son are faced with the choice of spending the night cold or hungry.
She spoke to me candidly. Half a decade of providing testimony has molded her into a resolute speaker, but that took time. She recalled that the first time she testified in Hartford she was terrified and vulnerable among so many people with power.
“I always cried in the beginning,” she said, “because I was letting them in, to my world. My world, that they don’t seem to give two cents about. I’m standing up there asking don’t cut this. To please do something. Stop making your budget on my back.”
On November 12, I stopped by the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen (DESK’s) Sunday meal. Meagan Howard, the Program Manager, asked one of the guests to lead everyone in saying grace before the food was served. The volunteers dished out helpings of lasagna, quinoa, pork, salad, and desserts for each guest that came by with their tray. A group of Yale students offering to do bloodwork were stationed near the DESK Library, a bookshelf stuffed with donated texts from New Haven Reads, SCSU, and TPS Group.
A young woman saw me walking by and, knowing I was a reporter, asked if I wanted to sit down with her and her group. Her name is Gina, and she’d come with her boyfriend, her brother, and a friend she’d just met a couple days before. I asked if that Sunday night was the first time she’d been to DESK. She said no, sheepish for a moment before her boyfriend cracked a joke and her face lit up again.
She comes to DESK because she’s homeless, living on the New Haven Green. Her goal at some point in the future is to go to college. Gina completed high school just last year, but while doing a fifth year schooling she decided to move in a different direction. We were all around the same age. Her brother reminded me of some goofy kids I know from back home. Less than two hours from that point, I was sitting in the Branford dining hall surrounded by people I knew. I could easily picture Gina teasing her boyfriend at the table behind me.
“We emphasize a principle of equity,” DESK Director Steve Werlin told The Politic. “The people who come here as guests are no different from the people who come here as volunteers. Ultimately, we want both the guests and volunteers to come not because they feel they have to, but because they want to.”
He also dislikes the narrow focus on food insecurity. “It runs the risk of putting hunger into a silo, that hunger exists and that’s it. Hunger is a symptom of poverty. This is about people’s inability to make a living wage.”
“I’m good at it,” Hart said, describing her political role. “But I’m not proud of it.” Her voice trailed off. She took a couple seconds to collect herself. “If I had a job, a living wage, I wouldn’t need SNAP. I wouldn’t need the soup kitchens. I wouldn’t need the food pantries. I could go to Shop Rite and Stop & Shop, like every other American, here in this country.”