Funding Cuts Hamper Bensonhurst Food Pantry’s Ability To Serve Skyrocketing Demand

A volunteer serves a resident in need at Reaching Out Community Services

Francine Russo noticed that there were only five boxes of cereal left on the shelf.

All morning, her fellow volunteers had led clients around an aisle of shelves filled with a very meager selection of food. The freezer had been turned off. They had run out of meat.

Looking at the cereal left, Russo had a hard announcement to make.

“Only families with children get cereal,” she said.

Daily food shortage is one of the many problems that have plagued Reaching Out Community Services, a food pantry located in 7708 New Utrecht Avenue.

“As the economy has gotten worse, more people have started to depend on us,” said Thomas Neve, executive director and founder of the pantry. “Contributions have decreased.”

Because food distribution organizations like Food Bank and City Harvest have also seen a decrease in funds, the pantry receives less food.

Donations from Bensonhurst schools and churches continue to be generous, but pantry officials said they have not kept up with demand, which has skyrocketed from 800 clients to 4,000 in just four years.

“Starting now, we’re thinking of turning away about 500 families,” Neve said.

Their difficulties are not isolated. According to a study done in 2010 by New York City Coalition Against Hunger, 91 percent of feeding agencies in Brooklyn saw an increase in demand, and 64 percent of agencies reported that the amount of food was not enough to meet demand.

In addition, the federal budget bill passed by the House of Representatives in May proposes significant budget cuts to The Emergency Food Assistance Program, which provides food commodities to local agencies like food banks.

Reaching Out Community Services barely has enough money to stay open every month. Neve has had to take out a bank loan just to pay the rent, and a one-time significant anonymous donation has carried them through this year.

“But that money is now gone,” Neve said. “We stretched it out as much as possible.”

Over the years, the organization has asked for grants from several foundations with little success. Neve has also begged local officials, city councils and corporations, but he worries funding is going to the wrong places.

“I know that an arts center is very important,” he said. “You’ve got to eat. It’s not a luxury. It’s a necessity. Their priorities are messed up.”

One way the pantry has dealt with the lack of funding is by cutting back its hours of operation.   It’s now only open four days a week – Friday’s have been eliminated – which has been hard on the pantry’s all-volunteer staff.

“Mondays have become so heavy,” said Radame Lopéz, a 21-year old volunteer. “The less time we’re open, it’s a lot more work for us.”

One person affected by the pantry’s closing on Fridays is Patrick Purcell.

The 53-year-old has been coming to Reaching Out Community Services since his unemployment benefits ran out two years ago.

“One Friday, I came over. I had a buddy drive me. It was kind of like,” Purcell said and mimicked snapping his fingers in aggravation. “I can’t really say the word.”

The pantry, which he goes to once a month, has helped him as he tries to get back on his feet.

“I need to come here and get food to help me carry over to the next month,” he said.

Attempts at fundraising still continue, however. There is a recurring monthly donation function called “The Gift of Giving” on the pantry’s website that Neve has been tirelessly promoting to Bensonhurst residents.

In addition, the organization is hosting its third annual “Walk Against Hunger” on October 15 in Dyker Beach Park. The event is usually a big fundraiser, but so far this year, it has only been able to secure one company sponsor.

All in all, Neve is unsure how long the uncertainty can last, especially since the pantry needs continual financial support to stay open.

“If I can’t get it, then the whole program might have to shut down,” Neve said.

Make a donation to Reaching Out Community Services.

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