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Diasporian News of Tuesday, 16 December 1997

Source: New York Times

Desperate Immigrants Scrape for Meals

In the Bronx, a 40-year-old woman from Ghana ride the subway from food pantry to food pantry, pleading for groceries to fill her refrigerator. One turns her away because she lacks a referral. Another runs out of rice, spaghetti and green apples while she waits in line.

"I'll keep looking," the woman, Seena Boateng, said wearily as she walked out of the crowded church into the cold winter morning. "My children have to eat."

In Manhattan, a 53-year-old workfare participant from the Dominican Republic sweeps the city streets, searching for a glimmer of silver amid the trash. And he pockets the dirty nickels and dimes for food with a desperation that leaves his cheeks burning with shame.

And in Brooklyn, a 42-year-old mother of four from Trinidad spends her rent money on food, buying grape Kool-Aid instead of orange juice and canned tuna instead of fresh beef, and edging ever closer to eviction.

In the first wave of welfare cuts to hit New York City under the Federal welfare law, more than 50,000 able-bodied legal immigrants between the ages of 18 and 59 have been denied food stamps since September. The law, which was intended to move foreigners off public assistance and into jobs, has pushed an estimated 770,000 immigrants off the food stamp rolls across the nation, Federal officials say.

And as the months pass and kitchen cupboards grow barer, immigrants who earn on average about $10,000 a year find themselves giving up fresh meat, spending rent money on groceries, lining up at food pantries and hunting for work in a city where the unemployment rate stands at 9.1 percent, nearly double the national average.

Calling the situation a crisis, Peter F. Vallone, the Speaker of the City Council, proposed on Nov. 26 spending an extra $2 million to restock food pantries running short of supplies. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani agreed, and promised to have his aides survey the city's food programs to determine their needs.

But while advocates for the poor worry that hunger is on the rise in New York City, few of the more than a dozen immigrants interviewed recently said they were actually going hungry. Instead, they appeared to be sliding deeper into poverty.

State officials have agreed to finance food stamps for the elderly, the disabled and children, with the city contributing $26 million, but able-bodied adults no longer receive those benefits. And Houth Leng of Cambodia now gets $127 a month in food stamps instead of $354 for himself and his six children.

In a shabby brick tenement in the Fordham section of the Bronx, Leng can still afford to make chicken soup for his children, but he has eliminated snacks and has fallen a month behind in the rent.

In Flatbush, Brooklyn, Nicole Joseph of Trinidad crawls into bed some nights with a cup of Maxwell House coffee and a growling stomach while her two boys dine on leftover chicken stew. "It makes the food last a couple more days," she said.

And in Washington Heights, Seena Boateng of Ghana waited an hour last Wednesday in a line that began in a church basement on Broadway and spilled into the street, hoping for a bag of groceries, including powdered milk, a can of no-name tomato juice, an 18-ounce box of Kellogg's cornflakes, white rice and some sweet potatoes.

But while the jostling crowd peered anxiously at the white plastic bags filled with groceries, the Washington Heights Ecumenical Food Pantry ran out of tomato juice and cornflakes.

"We'll just have to give them more rice," sighed Oswaldina Carrillo, the pantry's coordinator.

Some local merchants say they also feel the sting of food stamp cuts, which has resulted in fewer customers.

Ramon Hernandez, manager of Los Prados Meat Market in Inwood, often stands in an empty shop these days, his white apron bloodied by the meat his customers can no longer afford. He used to take in $600 a week in food stamps. Now, it is only $200.

"It's hard on them and it's hard on us," said Hernandez, who was forced to lay off one of three employees, but still gives his customers orange juice and sweet sausages on credit. "Everyone is suffering."

But the impact of the cuts seems to vary neighborhood by neighborhood.

In a random survey of 42 food pantries conducted by the city several weeks ago, none reported having to turn away anyone, said Anthony P. Coles, a senior adviser to Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. The city is currently conducting a broader survey of hundreds of emergency food providers to better assess the need.

In March, the city filed a lawsuit against the Federal Government to prevent the cuts in food stamps and other benefits to immigrants, saying the loss of Federal food dollars would cause "extreme hardship, hunger and malnutrition."

The city lost that legal battle, but advocates for immigrants and city officials say the situation is less dire now that state officials have agreed to cover the most vulnerable immigrants, about 67,000 people across the state. "That has not solved the problem, but it has certainly ameliorated it," Coles said.

But advocates for the poor say it is not enough. The New York City Coalition Against Hunger, an association of food programs, has reported a growing crisis, with 73,000 families and individuals turned away from emergency providers when food runs out each month.

But Coles, who noted that city spending on food programs has increased steadily over the last four years, said the city's preliminary surveys did not yet support that.

But no one denies that thousands of immigrant families are now struggling. Janice Arrieta, the 42-year-old Trinidadian mother of four who buys Kool-Aid instead of juice, lies sleepless most nights as she frantically calculates her shrinking budget.

She used to receive $248 each month in food stamps. Now she receives $179.

She has fallen behind on her rent and her electric bill. A widow and a welfare recipient for several years, she is now looking for work.

That is exactly what the Republican Congressional authors of the Federal welfare law hoped would happen: that the new law would force immigrants on public assistance to move into the work force. And Ms. Arrieta, who used to be a cook in a restaurant, says she would welcome the opportunity to work.

But she has yet to find a permanent job. So she continues to scrimp and scrape, baking her own bread, going without meat and telling her children she can no longer afford fancy cereals like Froot Loops.

"Sometimes you feel like giving up," Ms. Arrieta said wearily. "The kids want this, the kids want that, and you just get depressed thinking about how life is."

But with four children to feed, she has little time for depression. So she whispers a prayer and gets back to the business of getting by. "I cook rice," she said. "Rice will always fill you up."