A light snow falls as seniors in Kingston, N.Y., struggle to pull their personal shopping carts along a small road, leading to a Hannaford supermarket. They have come from another part of the city, a 3–mile round trip, in search of healthy food.
Many people in Kingston are experiencing food insecurity while living in a mini “food desert,” an urban area where it is difficult to buy affordable, healthy, and fresh food. The problem affects many urban areas and, in recent years, has drawn national media attention.
Most of the city’s poor live in Midtown Kingston, which is home to only a few bodegas, small ethnic grocery stores, and convenience marts. The food choices are often limited and more expensive than at a supermarket. If people want fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy options, they often must walk, take a bus, or a car service to supermarkets that are miles away.
“For those who aren’t able to get to the grocery store, places such as The Salvation Army and a few other pantries in town are great stop–bys,” says Captain Erik Muhs, a Salvation Army officer in Kingston. “We see the same people every week, and new people are finding out about us. I would say food insecurity is an issue, and it is growing with the immigrant population, which is slowly moving up from New York City to the Mid–Hudson area.”
Jennifer DeVoll, a recent visitor to The Salvation Army soup kitchen in Kingston, exemplifies the problem. She can’t drive because she recently lost an eye. A single parent with three children (13, and 11–year–old twins), she sometimes takes a taxi to the supermarket, but it’s a $14 round trip and that cuts into her food budget, which doesn’t stretch as far as it once did.
DeVoll said the neighborhood now has a small Hispanic market, but options are limited and generally more expensive. Meanwhile, The Salvation Army offers fresh fruits, vegetables, salads, meats, pastries, breads, and a wide array of canned foods. She tries to find food that will stretch until she can get back to the soup kitchen.
“This place is great because you can come here every single day and get fresh vegetables, bread, snacks for the kids, lunch meat, and all types of stuff,” DeVoll said. “During these tough times, if it wasn’t for places like this, I don’t know where I’d be. It’s crazy right now.”
To keep the internet connected so her kids can do their schoolwork, DeVoll makes minimum payments on her other bills. She suffers from anxiety, depression, and PTSD from childhood trauma, so knowing The Salvation Army is just around the corner when she needs food gives her peace.
“It’s a godsend, and I’m right in the neighborhood,” she said. “It’s the neighborhood go–to for a lot of people who are struggling right now.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.” Groups most likely to face this challenge tend to be seniors, children, and people living in poor urban and rural communities. Nearly 40 million Americans (including 12 million children) were food insecure in 2020, according to the non–profit Feeding America.
Dalia Calixto, who comes to the soup kitchen in Kingston three or four times a week to help feed a family of 12, grabbed as many vegetables as she could during a recent visit.
“The prices are too high at the grocery store,” she said.
Dawn, a cancer survivor, said the price of food in the grocery store is a hardship if you’re trying to eat healthy. She also walked away with an assortment of fruits and vegetables.
“It’s a lifesaver,” Dawn said. “It really is. I work, but I can’t afford to buy fresh vegetables and fruit in our society. It’s sad. It’s very expensive, so what I get from The Salvation Army keeps me going and keeps me healthy. This is an important place and it’s much appreciated.”
Muhs said The Salvation Army has a partnership with Hannaford, which provides produce, bread, pastries, and deli items, that are nearing expiration. Other food comes from the Regional Food Bank and local farmers. The soup kitchen served 746 children, 476 adults, and 240 seniors in one month in 2022, while the food pantry served about 200.
“Some of these people are homeless, and it just feels good to give back and give people hot meals and make sure they eat,” says Tyrone Cobb, social services director for The Salvation Army in Kingston. “It’s rough out there right now. Some people are not working. They need help and we’re here to help. We do a lot here. It’s a big help for the people.
“It makes me feel good that somebody is able to get a hot meal, and able to take some food home, and they won’t go hungry for the next week.”
Salvation Army Captain Joseph Hansen said the situation is similar in Binghamton, N.Y., after two grocery stores closed on the city’s north side in the last five years. He calls food insecurity “one of the largest problems in our area.”
“It is difficult for them to get to a major grocery store,” Hansen said. “They’ve had nothing but fast food and convenience food in that area. With the pandemic and inflation, it’s just gotten that much harder. A lot of people around here are either unemployed or underemployed, so they need the food from our food pantry and soup kitchen to just get by.
“We have lots of social services here, but they mainly deal with homelessness and rent and utility assistance. We’ve decided to focus on food insecurity.”
An opportunity to share the gospel
The Salvation Army’s soup kitchen is the only one in the city open seven days a week and serves 50,000 meals a year at breakfast and dinner. The corps also offers a food pantry Monday through Friday.
“I believe it’s one of the ministries that keep us moving and relevant in Binghamton,” Hansen said. “It is our most supported ministry from donors and other agencies.
“When you’re hungry, you don’t have hope. When you don’t have hope, everything seems bad. We’re just glad to give them a small sliver of hope that things will be OK.”
Salvation Army Major Jonathan Jackson, currently stationed in Newark, N.J., said the city is divided politically into five wards and people generally stay where they live. However, in a possible solution to the food desert dilemma, Newark Area Services is centrally located and the food pantry there serves a couple hundred people a month from all over the city.
Jackson said the major reason for food insecurity in Newark is that the average family makes about $28,000. “It’s pretty tight here for people in this city,” he said.
Newark is fortunate to have a plethora of non–profits and Jackson said desperate people sometimes visit them all.
“They’re going to multiple agencies, often on the same day, to get food to get them through for a while,” he said.
Several other Salvation Army officials agreed that the economy is a major issue driving food insecurity, citing inflation, and rising costs.
“We really can feel that people are just not doing as well,” said Major Pam Armour, a Salvation Army officer in Peekskill, N.Y. “The money is just not stretching nearly as far as it used to, so people are depending more on us for food. They are so grateful that we have a meal for them for lunch.
“We’re seeing people who wouldn’t necessarily take advantage of a free lunch before, but many people are making it a must–stop during the day.”
Armour said the soup kitchen once saw 30–40 people a day, but in the last several months those numbers have increased to 90–110 families. A similar number come to the food bank and for a once–a–month produce giveaway.
The encounters have opened doors to share the gospel. Armour said her husband, Major Rickie Armour, loves interacting with the people and inviting them to the corps. Two homeless men recently came to the men’s club.
“He is out on that line quite a bit evangelizing, meeting with people, and sharing the word of God and love of God,” she said. “We’ve had people show up for church because they came to soup kitchen.”
Helping people survive
Lieutenant Marlon Rodriguez, a Salvation Army officer in Lebanon, Pa., said he has seen a major influx of people to the cityfrom Puerto Rico in the past four years. He stopped by The Salvation Army during a recent Second Harvest food distribution to find the parking lot’s 80 spots full.
“The line to get the Second Harvest products reached at least a block long,” he said. “People were coming in, picking up groceries, and 95 percent were Hispanics.”
The Second Harvest grocery program is held twice a month and about 1,500 families show up each time to get enough food for a family of four to last a month, Rodriguez said.
His wife, Lieutenant Ivonne Rodriguez, said rising grocery store prices that are pinching low–income families is the main reason for food insecurity.
“I’ve spoken to many clients who come to the corps. It’s just the cost of the food. When they go to the supermarket, it is very expensive and they don’t have it,” she said. They also must pay rent, utilities, childcare, and other costs.
“They have big families and sometimes it’s not having enough [money] coming in. There is more going out and not enough coming in,” she said.
Lieutenant Ivonne said she gets emergency calls every day from people who need food. Many are not receiving government assistance.
“We get many calls for emergency food, and they are thankful that we are there,” she said. “Many of them say, ‘You don’t know how much this helps.’ They are grateful. Even though they are working class, they are just not making enough to get by.”
The food pantry at The Salvation Army in Lebanon is open every day and the corps also delivers 300 food boxes a month to seniors through a partnership with DoorDash.
“There’s always food for those in need,” she said.
Many communities continue to struggle after three years of the COVID– 19 pandemic. Major Giselle Acosta, a Salvation Army officer in Pawtucket, R.I., said the pandemic “disrupted every level of people’s livelihoods and many are still sorting out what their future will look like.” The Salvation Army is there to help. The food pantry has more than 500 families registered.
“They are able to participate every other week, as opposed to once a month, before the pandemic hit,” she said.
Remnants of COVID–19
The Salvation Army in Harrisburg, Pa., has had a food pantry for years, but a new building and pantry opened in September 2019 and was quickly overwhelmed.
“Our food pantry exploded overnight,” said Meghan Zook, the community health and nutrition administrator for The Salvation Army in Harrisburg. “We went from only being open a couple days a week to increasing our hours of operation. We had evening opportunities for people to come and get food, we had weekend opportunities, and we added appointments for every single day.
“I thought to myself that we would have the ability to go back to what we were doing before COVID, but we really haven’t decreased our hours of operation. We’re still seeing the long–term effects of COVID. We’re still just so busy and I think our area really struggles with food insecurity.”
Zook said The Salvation Army is serving about 503 households and 2,000 individuals a month. “It’s not just because of COVID,” she said. “People are just hurting for cash. The rents are high, and many people have had to move. They put their money toward food and then they can’t pay for rent. People really found out about our pantry during COVID, and they gained trust in us, and a good relationship was formed with the community.”
In the summer, church members grow produce, which is always available in the food pantry.
“We know that fruits and vegetables are more expensive,” Zook said. “We want people to take as much as they can from the produce coolers. We encourage that.”
Providing fresh produce for people wanting to live a healthy lifestyle has helped The Salvation Army fight the insecurity issue. Major Karen Bender said The Salvation Army in Mansfield, Ohio, receives produce, frozen foods, and meats from Kroger and Kentucky Fried Chicken, as well as from small businesses.
“We have so much food available for people,” she said. “We have farmers who donate eggs and potatoes whenever we need them. We have people come in every day and we pass out food every day. Nobody goes hungry. If they do, they don’t know about the availability of food.”
The Salvation Army draws 70–100 people for a weekly meal, while the food pantry and a food giveaway event both draw 30–35.
The working poor
In Cleveland, The Salvation Army’s West Park Corps distributes 24,000 pounds of fresh produce once a month from March to September.
“Right now, there is such a need for fresh fruits and vegetables to have a balanced diet. But with the economy, it’s not affordable for most homes,” said Melanie Nolen, social services coordinator at West Park. “We’re blessed to be able to help. At least once a month, people can have a nice abundance of fresh produce in the home.”
Major Pam Rhodes, a Salvation Army officer in Canandaigua, N.Y., said even clients receiving maximum Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits are having a difficult time making ends meet.
“Those people are struggling the most,” she said. “They may not qualify for a $400–a– month food benefit because they make just a few bucks too much. The working poor are really the hardest group hit right now because there are just no programs for them.”
Rhodes said many of the working poor who were living paycheck–to–paycheck and struggling to buy food before COVID– 19 are now also dealing with a higher cost of living, but their paychecks have not kept up with costs. “People are deciding whether they’re going to pay their rent or buy their groceries or turn on their heat,” she said.
The Salvation Army is collaborating with other non– profits in Canandaigua to help homeless people, who are housed in five local hotels. Food pantries are several miles away and they often lack transportation. Rhodes said The Salvation Army bought a 12–passenger van to visit the hotels once a week to bring nutritious food and hygiene items to about 50 people. Another 100–150 visit the food pantry each month.
“We’ve had people break down in tears because they didn’t know where they were going to be getting food from, especially the people we deliver food to,” she said. “The people all know we are pastors. We have been able to pray with people.”
The food insecurity issue has opened a door for spiritual contacts. Rhodes said her favorite part of the day is walking past caseworker Maria Bizardi’s office as she prays with someone. During one recent trip to a motel, Rhodes taught an elderly man with cancer how to operate his microwave. They also prayed together.
“He gave me his skinny and cold hand and I was able to pray over him. That’s where the rubber meets the road. That’s where the mission matters most,” Rhodes said.