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Unheeded help for hunger - Many in need, but few take advantage of food stamps

While hunger is on the increase in Brooklyn and across the city, those who are eligible for food stamps do not necessarily apply for them. Indeed, according to a recent study released by FoodChange, an organization which has been grappling with issues around hunger since 1980, as many as 700,000 people citywide are eligible for food stamps, yet have not applied. More surprisingly, perhaps, over one-quarter (180,000) of those who do not get food stamps, though they are entitled to them, are immigrants. In Brooklyn alone, approximately 57,000 immigrants who are entitled to food stamps have not applied for them, according to the report released by FoodChange, Immigrant Access to the Food Stamp Program, which notes, “Immigrants have lower rates of participation in the Federal Food Stamp Program compared to the native-born.” At the same time, immigrants have higher poverty rates. Says the report, “The United States Census notes that in 2004, the rate of poverty among foreign-born non-citizens was 21.6 percent compared to 12.1 percent among the native-born. This disparity persists despite high rates of immigrant participation in the labor force.” Eligible immigrants who do not take advantage of the food stamp program live across the borough, but are clustered in communities such as Coney Island (one of two neighborhoods in the city identified as having “the highest concentration” of non-participating immigrants, according to FoodChange), and East Flatbush (where the zip code 11226 is the one with the highest concentration of non-participating immigrants, says FoodChange). Other neighborhoods in Brooklyn with a high number of eligible immigrants who do not participate in the food stamp program include Sunset Park, Boro Park, Kensington, Ridgewood, Bushwick, Williamsburg, Sheepshead Bay and Brighton Beach, according to the FoodChange report. Indeed, Brooklyn and Queens are the two boroughs with the highest concentration of eligible immigrants not receiving food stamps. What is the cost? In social terms, not having food stamps to which you are entitled can mean not having enough money to buy nutritious food, which can lead to a variety of health conditions that are pervasive in the city’s poor neighborhoods, among them, obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. There is also an up-front financial cost. The borough of Brooklyn loses an estimated $52 million in federal dollars each year because immigrants who are eligible for food stamps do not apply for them says Nicole Christiansen, director of food access for FoodChange. “Food stamps are a win-win for everyone, the neighborhood, the consumer, the borough and the city,” attested Christiansen. “They give people the access to the foods they need and would choose. Why do those immigrants who are entitled to food stamps fail to apply, even when the need is great? “People are not really clear if they are eligible,” noted City Councilmember Domenic Recchia, who represents a large swath of southern Brooklyn. “A lot of people are scared to apply and, more importantly, many people are proud and don’t want to apply. They don’t want government subsidies.” Stewart concurred. “Part of the problem is that immigrants have fear,” he told this paper. “I don’t think the folks who administer the program really understand to do things to encourage folks who are entitled to get it to apply. Even in school, parents are fearful of filling out forms to be part of the food program.” Christiansen agreed that lack of vital information has limited participation in the food stamp program by many of those who need it most. “They are afraid (applying for food stamps) will have an adverse affect on their immigration status,” Christiansen stressed, “and they are not aware that even if the parents are undocumented, they can apply without fear for their children under 18 who are documented or who are American citizens. “Information about their status can’t be shared with the immigration office,” Christiansen emphasized. In addition, Christiansen said that, in some cases, “There may be language barriers.” Also, she said, “If there is a situation where people feel they have been treated unfairly, that doesn’t promote the program very well. If they feel they have been treated disrespectfully, they lose their nerve.” There is also, she noted, “A stigma attached to food stamps.” Finally, said Christiansen, the program underwent various changes in 2002, and many people are not aware of how the program has changed and what it may mean for them. To counter these challenges, the City Council is poised to take action. Noted City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, “With thousands of immigrants and their families struggling to put food on their table, the city needs to take steps to help more New Yorkers take advantage of available food assistance services.” To that end, the council has partnered with the New York City Central Labor Council and member unions to help identify potentially eligible New Yorkers and encourage them to apply for the program. In addition, reported Recchia, “We’ll be coming out with a program to do community outreach to register as many people as possible for food stamps.” “All the councilmembers are going to be doing things to help encourage folks to access government programs such as food stamps,” added Stewart.

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