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Times Union Commentary: Lawmakers, take these steps to fight hunger

(This article originally appeared in the March 23, 2022 edition of the Times Union)

By Dan Egan
March 23, 2022

Imagine waiting for hours outside in sub-freezing temperatures to feed your family. That is the unfortunate reality for New Yorkers experiencing food insecurity and economic desperation.

Across New York state, in rural and urban communities alike, families are facing unprecedented challenges. They’re dealing with uncertainty surrounding the global pandemic, a decades-high rise in the cost of living, and disappearing federal support. For millions of New Yorkers, the future is at best uncertain. It is our responsibility, as a community, to take care of each other.

Gov. Kathy Hochul and the New York state Legislature are working right now on a budget that determines funding levels for New York’s emergency food programs. Here in the Empire State, we take care of each other. And in that spirit we have but one simple ask for our elected officials: Do not leave struggling New Yorkers out in the cold.

It is no secret that our communities are experiencing economic hardship. Just last month, Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy reported that 3.7 million children slipped into poverty last month due to the expiration of the expanded Child Tax Credit — a significant percentage of whom hail from New York. Meanwhile, food prices have reached their highest levels in 11 years and are projected to increase by as much as five percent in the coming year. And with over 2.7 million New Yorkers relying on SNAP – including thousands more who rely on soup kitchens and food pantries to meet their nutritional needs — it is imperative that our leaders treat this issue with the urgency it deserves.

While families across our state struggle with impossible choices — pay the rent, or buy food? — others have stepped up to help. Thousands of volunteers have done their part to ensure that the food banks and food pantries continue our important work. Charities and nonprofits have done their part; now it is time for elected officials to do theirs.

Our food banks could not do their jobs without the state Department of Health’s Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program (HPNAP). Food banks across New York state rely on HPNAP as a major source of operating funds as they process, store, and distribute hundreds of millions of pounds of donated food each year. Put simply, HPNAP is a lifeline for New York families.

But as food banks’ costs have risen, HPNAP has not kept pace. We are now paying twice as much to move a truckload of food as we did 18 months ago. The governor has proposed flat funding for HPNAP for the fifth year in a row. This is unconscionable. We applaud the members of the Assembly and Senate who have proposed increasing HPNAP funding to meet this crisis.

A pandemic-era success story is the Nourish New York initiative. Nourish New York, which connects New York’s farmers with food banks and emergency food providers, has distributed over 35 million pounds of fresh, healthy food from over 4,100 farms since April 2020. It is a great example of a public policy that supports farmers, reduces hunger, increases access to New York produce, and strengthens the economic relationship between upstate and downstate communities. Supporting New York farmers and hungry New Yorkers at the same time is a no-brainer, which is why we call on our elected officials to adequately fund this common-sense initiative.

Finally, our food banks are on the front lines of hunger prevention, and have proven themselves to be invaluable, cost-effective partners in the fight against poverty. Through the establishment of a New York State Food Bank Capital Fund, we can help our entire network of food banks invest in their physical infrastructure and improve their food storage and distribution.

It is easy to understand why families across our state are feeling anxious. Poverty is on the rise due to the expiration of pandemic-era support programs like the expanded Child Tax Credit; soaring prices have made it more difficult for New Yorkers to get by while wage growth has struggled to keep up with the rate of inflation; unemployment in the Empire State remains significantly higher than the national average; and uncertainty surrounding the future of the pandemic has placed tremendous strain on our most vulnerable.

These realities cannot be addressed with flat funding.

While we applaud the significant investments our state and federal governments have made in response to the pandemic, we must not grow complacent. Now is the time to adequately support our state’s emergency food programs so that no New Yorker is left behind.

Thankfully, our state has the resources to get this done. We call on Gov. Hochul and the state Legislature to lead on this issue and help reduce food insecurity across our great state through robust support for New York’s emergency food programs.

Dan Egan of Albany is the executive director of Feeding New York State.