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School’s end puts strain on boro food pantries

A group of fourth-graders at PS 151 in Astoria have shown that the youngest people often have the most compassion and resiliency in helping others deal with staggering hunger.

In the spring, Gina Tola’s class worked at the New York...

By Dan Trudeau

11th in a series

A group of fourth-graders at PS 151 in Astoria have shown that the youngest people often have the most compassion and resiliency in helping others deal with staggering hunger.

In the spring, Gina Tola’s class worked at the New York School of Urban Ministry’s food pantry on 31st Avenue in Long Island City once a week for a month, packing more than 600 bags of food for families in need, said Jim Erle, the Urban Ministry’s food pantry director.

“If they drop a bag of food, they start crying because they know that’s food that could have helped a hungry person,” Erle said.

Erle, who has run the pantry for around two years, said that in the past year demand for free food service has doubled, but at the same time grant complications and economic strain have forced the pantry to close its doors twice in the last six months. The closings have been the first since he took charge.

“The calls just keep coming. Mothers are calling, pastors are calling, churches are calling, saying, ‘We need food,’” Erle said. “To look a person in the face and say, ‘We have no food,’ that is heart-wrenching.”

He said the generosity and enthusiasm the youngsters displayed was a good omen for the future of the community and a great example of the kind of attitude necessary to help end hunger for Queens families.

Summer brings a definite influx of families looking for relief at Erle’s pantry as the end of the school year and an end to convenient, free lunches for kids set many parents scrambling for options outside the school system.

At the beginning of the summer vacation, a number of families facing food shortages were in dire straits as the Department of Education closed cafeterias at nearly 200 schools in the city and 23 in Queens. The move effectively halted the benefits of free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch for many students in need, according to a statement issued by the Community Food Resource Center, an advocacy group for the hungry and homeless.

Paul Rose, a spokesman for the DOE, said the cafeterias that closed were located in schools without a significant number of summer school students and thus were not cost-effective. He pointed out, however, that students at schools without an open cafeteria were able to walk to nearby schools for lunch.

“Just to be clear, students were at no time deprived of the opportunity to enjoy a school meal,” Rose said.

One Woodside mother, Jawana, who asked not to be further identified, said the closing of PS 151’s cafeteria had made it more difficult for her to feed her four children in the early summer. Jawana often relies on food pantries to provide nutrition for her children, one of whom suffers from a serious health condition.

“It’s kind of hard when you have small children,” Jawana said. “You have to go to different pantries for different things, especially when you have children with special needs.”

In mid-July, however, pressure from parents combined with lagging attendance at the city’s summer school programs prompted the Department of Education to reopen most of the closed cafeterias, especially in elementary and middle schools where children are not able to go out for lunch.

“After receiving feedback from parents who decided they didn’t want their children to travel to other schools, it was decided that meals would be delivered to (all sites),” Rose said.

But in spite of the renewed support from the public schools, some experts say that many children will still struggle with hunger before September ushers in the beginning of a new school session.

“Summer for a lot of kids is an exciting time, but for those who don’t have a place to get meals, it can be a scary time,” said Anna Shenk, a spokeswoman for the Food Bank for New York City.

While close to 70 percent of kids in New York City are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches through the public schools, Shenk said only 25 percent of those are expected to seek the service during the summer.

Shenk said the reason many families do not go to the schools for much-needed help is unclear, but she speculated that limited access probably contributes to the problem. In some cases, parents either do not know how to find schools nearby that offer free meals or are not able to get their children where they need to go, she said.

According to the Food Bank, which sponsors 202 organizations in Queens to alleviate hunger, 68 percent of the New York City food pantries under its umbrella see a significant increase in the number of children seeking food during the summer months, as compared to the rest of the year.

Erle said this rising need often translates into stepped-up pressure on pantries to increase their output in spite of shrinking grant money. He said many families go to both the New York School of Urban Ministry’s pantry and the Salvation Army Astoria Corps at the same time, hoping to capitalize on the opportunity to get two bags of groceries without having to travel a great distance.

He saw cause for optimism, however, in the strong commitment the pantry has received from PS 151, noting that the fifth- and sixth-grade classes are expected to help along with the fourth-graders, once school reopens in the fall.

“They’re hoping to come once a week for the whole year,” Erle said. “They’re so full of energy. It’s incredible.”

Reach Reporter Dan Trudeau by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 173.

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