Patrick Jean-Baptiste testifies at NYC Council hearing on Hunger

Posted on: January 13, 2016
First, I want to start by thanking Councilman Levin, Chair of General Welfare Committee, for giving Masbia Soup Kitchen Network the opportunity to come here today and talk about some issues that us and many other soup kitchens face here in New York City. My name is Patrick Jean- Baptiste and I have been involved with Masbia since 2012. I started as a volunteer, but now I am currently the site coordinator for our Flatbush location in Brooklyn. Masbia is a soup kitchen network comprised of three locations spread throughout Queens and Brooklyn.

Serving over 1.5 million meals every year and growing, we pride ourselves in serving our guests with dignity by creating a restaurant like atmosphere in our kitchens. Anyone is able to receive a hot, kosher meal with no questions asked. Masbia is a volunteer based organization, so we depend on over 1,000 weekly hours of volunteer service in order to operate. We also distribute pantry packages every Thursday to cover the meals for the weekend, during which we are closed. Our clientele continues to grow every year, showing that more and more people are in need of our help. Over 1.5 million people in New York City are at risk for going hungry so we hope that these following points will help improve, or at least give you insight to the issues we encounter on a daily basis.
In Exhibit A, you are able to see a 350% increase our total meal counts from our pantry and dinner services over the last 3 years. The amount of meals served has been ever increasing as the years go by in almost all of the locations. In the case of Boro Park, we were closed for a few months for FY 2015. Fortunately as of this week, we secured a lease for our new Boro Park location. Although we have locations in two boroughs, it does not accurately represent the total population in need. We serve over 1.5 millions meals which is just a portion of those who seek emergency food, putting perspective to how large the problem of food insecurity is in New York City. 

Recommendations: Soup Kitchens Should Receive Direct Funding to Purchase Their Own Food
From our point of view, directly receiving and spending our own funding, instead of relying on the city to do the purchasing, is the best solution to many of the systematic based problems.
The federal government creates their list of foods available to emergency food programs based on what food is in a price stabilization program. It is understandable that The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) offers a range of proteins, for example, like peanut butter, beans, canned beef stew, tuna etc. According to “MyPlate” guidelines displayed in Exhibit B, both peanut butter and tuna fulfill the same point requirement for the protein category, but tuna is more expensive than peanut butter. If the goal is to have enough food for everyone, then is it not logical to buy the cheaper protein option since the city’s Emergency Food Assistance Program (EFAP) does not have to do price stabilization and is on a limited budget? Why does EFAP need variety in their selections?
Another point that I want to bring up that shows why we should be in control of our spending is that EFAP does not procure products for us that comply with the MyPlate portion sizes. By comparing “MyPlate” in Exhibit B with the items in Exhibit C, you can see that we receive 2oz. tuna packets but the serving size for 1 point is 5 oz., leaving us with a dilemma of whether to provide 4oz. or 6oz. The same problem is seen in the grape juice in Exhibit C where the bottle is 32 oz. but the serving size worth 1 point for juice is a minimum of 46 oz. Along the same lines, we often receive odd amounts of items that we are unable to use at one point of time because there are not enough. EFAP knows our clientele size so I question why do we receive these hard to use amounts? The discrepancy of the required product sizes and small quantities creates more issues. 
Aside from the problems with food sizes, the types of food offered contradicts the overarching goals for the health of the city. The use of fresh produce is constantly promoted. For example, the city invested in the allowance of Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) at green markets in order to promote fresh produce for low income families. By contrast In the city’s own program to the low income, only shelf stable items are readily available to soup kitchens. In addition to fresh produce being healthier than canned, it is also more appealing to our clients; especially for kids. As a child, I remember eating canned vegetables from the soup kitchen my family patronized and it was not a good experience. 
To further support our claim, the city buying food in bulk is not cost effective. The added transportation costs to deliver the food to individual locations diminishes the money saved in buying in bulk. In addition to buying in bulk for the purpose for long term use, the price of the item is more compared to buying items for the short term. The long term price factors in the fluctuation in the market value which ends up being more expensive than buying for immediate use.
We also are not notified of when the deliveries will be sent. This is a problem since we may not have enough volunteers scheduled that day to unload the items. Food Bank does call us ahead of time that we are receiving a delivery, but we never know if EFAP is added on.

All EFAP members receive direct cash support for rent and utilities. The same level of documentation can be applied to food purchases. Cutting out the middle man will also be environmentally efficient AKA “green” and reduce traffic of city trucks on the streets. 

If the system will not change to direct funding, there are two takeaways:
1. If there are still soup kitchens and pantries in the city that run out of food, EFAP should reduce the types of food offered to those that get the most poundage for a particular nutritional category. For example, do not bid tuna vendors against each other but rather bid all proteins against each other.

2. Even if we do not go there, we should at least not have the same items in EFAP as shown in Exhibit D that are already published in TEFAP, as shown in Exhibit E. The TEFAP item list is published early in the year and the list is regularly available on the website. However, we often receive repetitive items from both EFAP and TEFAP which can cause problems for us depending on the situation. For example, if TEFAP has many pasta options listed, EFAP should ideally send pasta sauce. Hypothetically, the worst case scenario would be receiving sauce from both programs with no pasta to give. In the past, we received salmon from both programs but we did not have enough grains for that pantry week. Items should compliment each other so that they can be utilized more efficiently. 

Non-EFAP Related Suggestions
We believe that many of the smaller issues soup kitchens face can be solved by having the city cooperate with soup kitchens with little added cost. Recently, we started utilizing the city sanitation to collect our garbage at our Flatbush location twice a week. However, we still pay for a private company to collect the garbage for the remaining days due to the amount of garbage that we have to throw out. In Queens, we do not have city sanitation at all because the location is behind a bus shelter and we are located on a street with no residential pick ups. Public schools receive pick up everyday due to their large volume of garbage. It would be extremely helpful and very inexpensive to the city if all soup kitchens have the same status as schools. Thousands of dollars that we could have used towards food is spent on sanitation. By The Way commercial sanitation does not recycle.
The next concern I have, that would be both beneficial to the city and all soup kitchens, is the use of police officers for crowd control. The lines extend onto the streets and in front of other storefronts, causing unintended disruption to local businesses. Having a couple of officers help control the lines and maintain order will make our process calmer and decrease the unintentional disturbances we cause to our neighbors. We have tried many times to have an officer present on these days but our requests were never heard. In return with helping us, the police force will get to do “{community policing” and increase police-community relations.
The Summer Youth Employment Program is now offering positions all year round . We believe that emergency food providers should be given priority for job placements since the issue of hunger demands a growing need for help. Operating a food pantry used to be more simplistic in the past because it was mainly about distributing food. Because the shift has moved away from just about the food and more towards adhering to systems like client choice and “MyPlate”, it requires more labor for the pantry to operate. Thus, emergency food providers need more hands in order to function in today’s world. 
When the Department of Health sent out letters to food establishments to stop using styrofoam, our disposable costs increased drastically because we now have to use paper/plastic. I am sure that the city can find ways to help us on that issue by either providing a loophole for emergency food programs or helping with the costs. For example, Councilman Brad Lander’s bill regarding the reduction of plastic bag use will require businesses to charge 10 cents for a plastic bag. However, this bill exempts emergency food providers. It is possible for policies to be considerate towards soup kitchens when it involves offering more city services. Addressing our concerns would improve the efficiency and be cost saving to not just us, but all soup kitchens. 
The last point I want to make deals with the numerous health inspections we receive. The Health Department, EFAP, Food Bank, United Way and City Harvest all conduct site inspections which seems redundant to us. We understand the importance of adhering to health codes but there is an over zealotry on inspections when the focus should be about the larger problems on food. I am not suggesting this because we are afraid of inspections. We just believe that the time and money spent should be focused on the larger issue at hand. 

Most Important Point
All of these ideas are about how to tweak and improve the systems in place from within, but the size and funding of the program is miniscule. With the current budget, the city buys 10 million dollars worth of food as an insurance for 1.5 million people who are at risk of going hungry. This breaks down to a yearly allotment of $6 worth of emergency food per person. It is clearly not enough, but this is what the current situation is. The budget for food is way too small to help a population that is very large. If the goal is to make sure soup kitchens and pantries do not run out of food, then the overall change needed is to increase the budget. I am unsure of what the right number is, but I do know that it is mutiple times higher than what the budget is currently set to. Thank you for your time. Any questions?

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