Fall is typically accompanied by the opening of so many new restaurants in New York City that lists singling out the 20 or 30 most anticipated proliferate every September. Brooklyn, unsurprisingly, is home to a vast number of them, and so it is that the borough with its own epicurean abbreviation (NBC: New Brooklyn Cuisine) is witnessing the arrival of Parm Williamsburg, where the garlic bread is glamorized; Ichiran in Bushwick, where tonkotsu broth will soak the ramen; and Harvey, in a boutique hotel (also in Williamsburg), where the grains will be house-milled.
Brooklyn finds far more bleak distinction in a new report from the Food Bank for New York City, which reveals it not only to be the borough with the highest rate of what is known as “food insecurity” — 20 percent — but also the highest percentage increase in the rate of food insecurity from 2009 to 2014 — a time imagined to be one of economic recovery. Food insecurity, a federal measurement, means a household has limited or uncertain access to adequate food. While the figure declined 11.8 percent over that period in the Bronx, the city’s poorest borough, it rose 8.7 percent in Brooklyn.
The crucial detail in the study involves the meal gap, which calculates the annual number of meals that a household can’t afford after benefits from state and federal nutritional assistance programs and free school lunches have been exhausted. In its research, the Food Bank found Brooklyn had the largest increase in the meal gap of any borough — one that grew by nearly 13 million meals in six years.
The news was not what Margarette Purvis, chief executive of the Food Bank, the primary supplier of food pantries around the city, was anticipating. “I stopped what I was doing and said, ‘Excuse me?’” she recalled. “When we think of Brooklyn we think of it as a foodie paradise; we think of the beautiful brownstones and we think of the high-rises. And the view from the high-rises is need.”
A map of the meal gap by community in Brooklyn provides perhaps one of the most striking illustrations yet of the connection between gentrification and poverty. Some of the neighborhoods with the highest rates of increased privation are those where the external impulse to transform and refurbish has been the most dramatic (Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, Prospect-Lefferts Gardens), and those where the displaced have then been exiled (Canarsie, East Flatbush, Brownsville, Ocean Hill), driving up rents, in a reverberative effect. With unemployment lower in Brooklyn than in the Bronx and no meaningful difference in the growth of food costs between the two boroughs, researchers found, housing cost was the primary cause of food sacrifice.
The Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger, one of the city’s most active food pantries, sits at the center of the storm, at the junction of Bed-Stuy, where the price of a single-family home has nearly tripled over the past decade and where rents have soared, and Brownsville and Ocean Hill, two of the poorest areas in the city. Founded in 1998 by Melony Samuels, a former insurance executive who imagined her mission might be temporary, the pantry was serving approximately 5,000 people a month in 2006 from its site on Fulton Street and serves three times as many today. (The organization’s mobile units reach another 15,000 around Brooklyn and the Bronx.)
Because the Campaign Against Hunger keeps detailed records of its clients, works intimately with them and assists in tax preparation as part of its self-assigned duties, it knows a lot about those who come to the facility. About 15 percent have some form of higher education — that trend has been swerving upward since the recession. Some of them teach in public schools or are otherwise employed by the city.
On a recent morning when I visited, the lines were long. One woman, Veronica Logrande, who comes regularly (clients are permitted to use the pantry once a month), lives with her husband and only child in a shelter. Their income, including all benefits, totals just under $700 a month, she told me. She had a hard time allowing herself to get walnuts when she saw them, which she liked to toast and drizzle with honey as a snack for her son, because she regarded them as an extravagance. The amount of food, tallied in dollars, that a client can take home depends upon the specifics of individual or familial need.
One relatively positive change over the past three years, Ms. Samuels said, is a shift in shopping patterns that now has those who visit coming early in the month, rather than later, after Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program dollars, which have been subject to cuts in recent years, run out. People will come in to get fish and chicken and then deploy their SNAP benefits more broadly and efficiently in the marketplace.
When you ask those in the business of emergency food service — with all the reflexive indignation that surfaces in you — why every bit of leftover farro with spring greens and burrata coming out of a restaurant in Boerum Hill isn’t getting Ubered to a food pantry a few miles away, they will look at you with a forlorn knowingness. The potential for contamination is still a problem that no one seems to have solved (does that Uber ride have adequate refrigeration?). And pantries typically don’t have the cooking facilities to make use of the leftover ingredients restaurants may be able, and are often very eager, to supply. At the same time, restaurants themselves have been more aggressive in combating the problem of food waste, repurposing beet greens, for instance, rather than throwing them away.