How Robin Hood is Combating Food Insecurity in NYC

Before the pandemic and through to today, millions of New Yorkers struggle to put food on the table, relying on government benefits and pantries to feed their families.

Across the country, the ending of vital pandemic-era government supports, like the expansion of the Child Tax Credit and unemployment assistance, and the eviction moratorium, have put additional strain on family budgets, forcing many to turn to food pantries to feed their families. To make matters worse, food costs are up by more than 10 percent from last year, the greatest 12-month increase since 1981.

Poverty Tracker data from Robin Hood and Columbia University has shown the immense power of government benefits, which kept nearly 2 million New Yorkers out of poverty in 2020 alone. However, eligibility for certain benefits is restricted by immigration status, leaving many non-citizens ineligible for crucial poverty-fighting programs, like the Child Tax Credit and federal unemployment insurance. While some non-citizens are eligible for certain benefit programs, including SNAP, rules about how enrollment in benefits can affect prospects for citizenship have changed in recent years, creating uncertainty for immigrant New Yorkers and their families.

A new Poverty Tracker spotlight report highlights the impact that immigration rule changes have had on SNAP and pantry usage among non-citizens. Shortly after President Trump took office, his administration began floating plans to change how benefit enrollment could impact prospects for citizenship. The Trump Administration’s proposed (and subsequently adopted) rule changes determined that enrollment in SNAP constituted a “public charge,” meaning it could be used to deny an individual’s citizenship application. Although the Biden Administration reversed this ruling, researchers and agencies have documented a “chilling effect,” meaning some SNAP-eligible non-citizens are forgoing the program for fear of being denied citizenship. This chilling effect extends to families with children who are eligible for SNAP benefits, but don’t enroll the children for fear of the consequences for the broader family. This leaves many families with children who are experiencing food hardship despite the resources that could be available to them.

The Poverty Tracker report shows that food pantry use among low-income non-citizen New Yorkers nearly doubled, from 17% to 30%, compared to an increase from 18% to 20% among low-income citizens. And according to Robin Hood community partner City Harvest, in the first half of 2022, New Yorkers visited food pantries and soup kitchens 3.5 million times per month on average — that’s up 69% from the first half of 2019. Food banks and pantries operated by Robin Hood’s emergency food partners throughout the five boroughs are feeling the strain, with many reporting significant increases in visits from non-citizen individuals and families.

So Robin Hood is addressing this urgent issue — by funding emergency food partners, investing in innovation and infrastructure, and advocating for policy changes that will reduce food hardship for New Yorkers.

We’re increasing grant support to current emergency food partners. We’re supporting our partner MinKwon Center for Community Action with a grant to establish a new emergency food pantry in the heart of Flushing, Queens. Queens has seen the biggest increase in visits to emergency food sites — one million monthly visits, an increase of 139% from the first half of 2019 — and is home to the largest immigrant population in NYC.

Robin Hood’s grant will enable MinKwon to hire key staff, purchase equipment for food storage, to establish their pantry operation and, in turn, secure city contracts to institutionalize itself as an official food pantry that will be a lasting resource for Flushing residents in need.

MinKwon’s food pantry operation.

We’re continuing to partner with the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy. Our work together is improving the emergency food system at the city level with two grants:

  • Supporting year two of an innovative emergency food distribution pilot using the Plentiful app, through which clients can choose their food with dignity and avoid many of the pain points of food pantries, which include stigma, physical access, and lack of food options that accommodate dietary and cultural needs.
  • Developing a performance management system for the city’s new Community Food Connection (CFC) program — a $53 million initiative to replace the decades-old Emergency Food Assistance Program (EFAP), and fund more than 500 community kitchens and food pantries citywide.

Through these partnerships, we’re ensuring that NYC agencies can effectively measure how food is distributed through the program, providing equitable distribution and prioritizing more neighborhoods that need emergency food resources.

Robin Hood is fueling innovative, tech-driven solutions to food insecurity through Blue Ridge Labs:

  • Rescuing Leftover Cuisine (RLC), a Blue Ridge Labs Catalyst program participant, has rescued over 2 million pounds of surplus food and provided more than 1.6 million meals to people experiencing food insecurity in 2022, preventing over 750,000 pounds of CO2 from landfills this year alone.
  • Fintech intervention Snappable, a 2022 BRL Fellowship team, is piloting a tool that enables farmers’ market vendors to receive on-the-spot payment from SNAP and WIC participants for fresh local and regional food. Vendors currently have to wait two weeks to six months to be reimbursed by the government, putting them at financial risk. Snappable seeks to free these funds to make it easier for farmers and low-income New Yorkers to sell and buy healthy products.

Robin Hood is unlocking growth opportunities for emergency food providers: By providing technical advice, access to top real estate professionals, and funding for capital projects, we’re helping our partners scale and grow their operations to better meet this critical moment and serve their communities. Examples include West Side Campaign Against Hunger’s newly-leased facility in upper Manhattan, which will be renovated to create space for warehouse operations, programs and office space; New York Common Pantry, which recently purchased a 20,000 square foot warehouse in the South Bronx to accommodate its growth during the pandemic; and City Harvest, which recently leased, renovated, and opened its new headquarters in Brooklyn.

Inside one of West Side Campaign Against Hunger’s food pantry facilities.

On the policy front, Robin Hood is working to ensure that non-citizens have information about benefits they are eligible for and how to apply and access those programs. We’re conducting state level advocacy to expand the range of benefits non-citizens can access. At the city level, we’re working to strengthen the benefits access network across the five boroughs and are advocating for the swift and full payment of government contacts to the human services organizations that provide these life-saving services.

Together, these efforts will help fortify New York City’s emergency food network system.

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