Inspiring People

VP for Research, Policy & Education, The Food Bank For New York City, Áine Duggan

Áine Duggan

Since 2004, Áine Duggan has served as the Vice President for Research, Policy & Education with the Food Bank For New York City. Áine supervises and sets the strategic direction for the Food Bank's public policy initiatives and is responsible for government and community relations as well as managing the organization's innovative education programs.

Prior to joining the Food Bank, Áine gained extensive experience in rights-based and community development programming and public policy. She has spent more than fifteen years working with, serving on boards, contributing to publications and acting as a public commentator for organizations in New York and Ireland dealing with homelessness, HIV/AIDS, refugee rights and immigration, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues. Prior to taking up full-time residence in the United States, she received her M.A. from University College Dublin, Ireland.

I attended a panel discussion recently on the Future of Capitalism where I heard Áine Duggan speak so powerfully about the relationship between hunger and poverty, how the middle class are rapidly falling into poverty and about the impact all of this has on our ability to innovate and to create. Aine has an incredible way of making the facts about poverty relevant to anyone no matter where they might fall on the food chain and the ability to create a sense of urgency like nobody I've heard speak on the subject.

DR: Tell me about your work.

AD: The New York City Food Bank is noted as being one of the biggest hunger organizations in the country. We come at the issue of food poverty and hunger from multiple angles.

We are the organization that provides most of the emergency food to soup kitchens and food pantries in the city and we have a network of just over 1,000 emergency and community food organizations. They are all over the five Burroughs. But in addition to the distribution of emergency food, we also have nutrition education programs that are operating in schools and in everything from senior centers to rehab programs. We have income support programs where we do food stamp application assistance and where we offer free tax assistance and, in particular, we concentrate on helping people get their earned income tax credit. The idea is that the combination of these programs addresses food poverty in communities throughout the city.

DR: Can you say a little bit more about why your program is structured this way.

AD: Everything we do has a city-wide approach because, being a big organization, we want to make sure that any program we bring on has an impact in every Burrough, in every community. The way that we operate is either a train the trainer model where we are going out and training other smaller organizations on how to implement the program in their community or we are the supplier. We have a huge warehouse that is located in the Bronx. We don't ourselves provide emergency food, with one exception. We actually have one program that we run as direct service.

All of our member organizations are able to use our resources. So you could have a small mom or pop soup kitchen located somewhere in the middle of Brooklyn or the South Bronx and they themselves may not have many resources but they would depend on us for food, volunteers, technical assistance. The one exception is that we have our own community kitchen. It has a food pantry and a soup kitchen. That program is designed to be an incubator or a model program so that we can test out new ways of doing things and then roll it out to the rest of the communities of emergency food programs – figure out what works and what doesn't.

DR: So, the mission of the Food Bank is to end hunger. Is that over simplifying it?


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AD: The mission is to end hunger and the focus is to do that by working with issues like food and community and individual dignity. The idea is to address the root cause of hunger which is of course poverty. As simple as that sounds to us, we are often surprised that people at large don't necessarily get the connection between hunger and poverty even though the only reason that somebody might not be able to put adequate nutritious food on the table for their family is because they can't afford to buy it.

DR: So you are seeing that there really is a disconnect for people with regard to the relationship between hunger and poverty?

AD: We are. There is.

I think that partly the disconnect exists because much of the way systems are set up in this country is through a disconnected web of programming. The Sunday Times ran an excellent article recently on the disjointed web of government assistance programs that poor people, and particularly people who become poor as a result of the current financial crisis, find themselves grappling with. Everything from food stamps to health benefits to cash assistance, all of these programs are completely disjointed from each other. They have different eligibility criteria. They are run differently in different states. You might be eligible for one cash amount in one state and a different amount in another state all for the same program and then the different types of assistance programs are run by different government agencies. It is extremely difficult for one individual to navigate all of the programs for which they might be eligible. The upshot is that the vast majority of people who are eligible for multiple programs will most likely participate in one or two programs. Very few people will actually be participating in all of the programs for which they are eligible.

DR: Because it's so confusing and chaotic?

AD: It's so confusing and chaotic. Every program has its own beaureaucracy. It's literally a full time job trying to navigate these programs. We do an amazing amount of work here helping people navigate programs. We have experts who know the ins and outs of different problematic areas. We have our food stamp experts and we have our health care experts and we have our emergency food experts. However, even for us as workers who are trained in these areas it would be extremely difficult to have someone who understands the nuances of every single government program that is out there. That is why it can be very difficult for someone to walk into a government office and get the help they need that will transfer across all program areas. There really isn't a worker out there who has that type of knowledge.

DR: I thought it was really interesting when I heard you speak recently about the middle class and how the middle class is “emerging” into the new poverty class. I wonder if a lot of people know much about that. It's so easy to think of hunger and poverty as a poor person's issue which makes it easier to ignore. Can you talk a little bit about how the landscape is changing?

AD: You often read, whether it's in literature from non-profits or whether its main stream articles, that the changing face of poverty or the changing face of hunger is families with children or the elderly. The “middle class” it is not the changing face, it is the typical face and it has been for quite some time.

If you actually track through the data that is out there, families with children, working individuals and elderly individuals or people who live with disabilities are the typical face of poverty. What we are seeing right now, because of the financial crisis, is that even more working individuals and even more families are falling into the trap. We know that more than seventy five percent of the people who rely on emergency food in New York City are living in rented accommodations. I point that out because all too often, the media stereotype of someone who is relying on a soup kitchen or a food pantry is that of an individual who is living on the street. That is not the case. Yes, there are many people who are living on the streets in New York City who need help and who are not receiving adequate help and they rely on soup kitchens and food pantries. But they are just a small percentage. They make up about ten percent of the people who rely on emergency food. The rest of the people either rent or own. You have a large number of elderly people who own their own homes but they may be surviving on Social Security. Once they have paid their other bills they are not able to afford food...

DR: Or they are having to make a choice between medicine and food.

AD: Based on the research that has been conducted throughout the country, the vast majority of people are making a choice between rent and food or between medical bills and food. And you can understand that anyone who has children is going to spend money on rent first because they have to keep a roof over their kids' head.

As a result of the current financial crisis, what we have seen is a steep increase in the number of middle class or middle income families and individuals who expect to rely on emergency food.

One of the things we have done is to conduct an annual poll to gauge people's ability to afford food. In November of this year, approximately 4 million people in the city, that's about forty eight percent of the city's residents, reported difficulty affording food. What's interesting about that number is the fact that there has been, since 2007, approximately twenty four percent increase in the number of people who reported difficulty in affording food. Since 2003 the number has doubled. In 2003 it was 2 million people that reported difficulty. The number has shifted and doubled.

If you look at individuals who have a college education or individuals who fall in middle income earnings between $25,000 and $50,000 or between $50,000 and $75,000, the trend has been that the number of people reporting difficulty has tripled in all of those categories in that time period between 2003 and 2008.

The concern right now with people losing jobs and middle income people being at risk is something that has hit the headlines since September or October of last year. We've seen it as an upward trend since 2003. This is not new for us. It's quite frankly that the cost of living has been sky rocketing for the past few years and income hasn't been keeping pace.

Between 2003 and 2008, the cost for food alone increased twenty two percent. If you are middle or low income, your wages didn't increase for the most part. The cost of housing, the cost of fuel and the cost of utilities during that same time period increased by even greater amounts. So, you can understand that for any family that is out there, it has become impossible.

DR: Well if I could be so crass as to suggest that there is a silver lining to the news that hit in September, that guess what - we are dealing with a financial crisis – it is that finally the issue that many people are finding it increasingly difficult to get by is getting some attention. It was no news to me either – the dramatic decline over the last five or six in the way that people have been able to live.

Are the middle class who are finding themselves for the first time in the predicament of no longer being able to afford food and other essentials, are they able to qualify for programs? Are they entitled to participate in the programs that already exist?

AD: It's a very interesting question because a lot of people may not be. If they exceed the eligibility income criteria for certain programs then they will not be able to take advantage. For example, the income eligibility limit for the food stamp program is a hundred and thirty percent of federal poverty. That will vary depending on the number of children in the household and other things. But just to give you an idea of how low it gets, one hundred percent of poverty for a family of three is going to average out at just over $18,000 a year.

It's not as if there is just one eligibility criteria that you have to meet. It is extremely difficult to navigate these programs and for most individuals who don't know how these programs work, particularly people who have just become eligible, it's almost impossible. So, you have middle income families who are managing to keep their jobs or they have gone from full time to part time so they are earning too much to be eligible. That's one problem. Second problem is, you have people who have become newly eligible for two reasons, their income has dropped or the changes that happened in the Farm Bill last year make them eligible because the food stamp program was improved last year. But these individuals or families might not even know that they are eligible and if they do know that they are eligible they won't know what to do with that information.

The amount of work that now goes into doing food stamp application assistance has quadrupled overnight. Less than 2/3 of the people that are eligible for food stamps in New York City are actually taking advantage of them. And that's just the food stamp program.

There are many, many other benefits. The simplest one of all is the school meals programs – school lunch, school breakfast and the summer meals programs. With the summer meals program, every kid under the age of eighteen is eligible but the participation rate is miniscule. Many families don't even know that the program exists. They don't know that every child is eligible. With the school lunch and school breakfast program you have the same problem.

Here in New York City the breakfast program is universal so every kid is eligible. It has a very low participation rate. School lunch is a tiered system so you have free, reduced and full priced lunches. Once you complicate any problem with that kind of layering you are giving people an extra obstacle to overcome. It also creates stigma around the program.

One of the reasons that you have low participation in the summer meals and school breakfast programs is because of the stigma of the lunch program. Kids are incredibly smart and they don't want to be seen to be participating in “welfare food”. You walk into any high school in New York City and you will see kids sitting in the lunch room, hungry, but they are not gong to eat because they don't want their friends to see them eating free food.

That stigma, not only impacts participation in the other programs for children but it is the type of stigma that is associated with participating in any benefits program in the United States.

There is a shame in being poor here. It can be detrimental to any household.

DR: It seems that a big piece of solving the hunger or poverty problem would be to reeducate the public about what it means or doesn't mean to be in need or in crisis; to reeducate people that being someone who needs help is not a bad thing. And, it seems to me that this could be an opportune time to do just that because the economy crashing has sucked a lot more people into a place where they never expected to be.

AD: Absolutely it's an opportune time because for years and years you have heard advocates and people working in the non-profit sector talking about people who are availing of government benefits being stigmatized when corporate welfare is being handed out left and right and nobody worries about it.

When your tax dollars go to corporate welfare nobody worries about it. When your tax dollars go to food stamps everybody wants to complain. But in light of the big bail out that went to Corporate America without many strings attached at all...If only the complications that exist in benefits for the poorest and most vulnerable among us were attached to the bail out package that went to Corporate America then maybe we would all feel more secure about our money.

That bail out package in particular has made people stand back and understand for the first time that when it is corporate welfare or government assistance to the rich, we don't worry, but when it is government assistance, our same tax dollars going to us or to our poor neighbors...

DR: It's labeled by some as "Socialism"...

AD: Right. Even though corporate welfare uses up many more tax dollars than assistance to the poor. That is something new and I do think that this is an opportune time for us to readdress how these programs work and to ask whether or not we are being efficient.

If you have programs that have multiple layers and you have to have a lot of government workers helping people with the process and umpteen forms for different programs and different offices that have to screen those forms and work out who is eligible for what, that is not an efficient system and that has to be costing more money than it is actually worth.

Streamlining the system isn't just good for the client, it's actually good for government too.

DR: Well, because you are spending all of your time and resources trying to figure things out while people are in need of real help.

AD: Right...

DR: If you could wave a magic wand and create an ideal system, what that look like?

AD: Any ideal system has to come straight from the minds and the mouths of the people who are most impacted. Most of the people that I have dealt with over the years who have found themselves at one stage or another needing government assistance of one kind or another, they pretty much say the same thing:

They are at a crisis point in their lives and it won't last.

They want to be able to avail of assistance in a dignified way while they are going through a rough period. I think that there are many countries around the world that facilitate that process, that allow for a dignified process...

DR: Such as?

AD: Such as any of the Scandinavian countries. They are very good examples when it comes to the social welfare system.

When you talk about Scandinavian social welfare system in America you get the pushback:

“Oh but they all pay really high taxes”.

We all pay really high taxes, it's just that our taxes go to other things. If you pay taxes into a system, you should then be able to go back into that pot and take out when you need. That is the whole idea of the Scandinavian social welfare system. You pay in and you take out when you need. You are paying in when someone else needs and round it goes.

The most important aspect of it is that there is a dignity that you can maintain while getting a hand up. And that lack of stigma is what allows people to take the assistance as they need it but then keep on trying and getting back on their feet as quickly as possible.

When you stigmatize people, it doesn't make them less in need of the actual assistance but what it will do is crush their spirit to a point that will now mean it takes them longer to get back on their feet. If you are telling somebody that they are worthless, it is going to be that much harder for that person to walk out into the world and compete and get the job that they need to take care of everything.

We don't do such a good job of that...

DR: We do a lousy job of that! And that is such a big piece of the puzzle. I am relieved that helping people to maintain their dignity is a focal point for The Food Bank.

How would you say that The Food Bank is impacting poverty overall in New York City and what is your hope looking down the road?

AD: We need to educate the world that food poverty is a barometer that we should all be looking at because people will go without food before they become homeless.

The first thing that will happen when you are really struggling to make ends meet is that you will go without food. So it actually is the barometer of need. It's never been looked at like that.

Food banks, or any organizations that deal with hunger, have resources that should be tapped into. We should all be looking at the numbers of people relying on emergency food. That is the first thing. We are the first port if you will.

The second thing is that food banks are possibly the most well positioned organizations throughout the country to start tackling some of our problems. If you look at New York City, our membership networks are serving over 1.3 million people and I should point out that that 1.3 million was the number as of 2007. There isn't another sector that has access to that number of poor people anywhere. So we have the audience that everyone is trying to reach.

People will come to a food kitchen or a food pantry faster than they will go into a government office for benefits. The reason is because those soup kitchens and food pantries are neighborhood programs. There is a gentle approach and it is about trying to help people. Our responsibility is to work with our networks to make sure that we are giving everybody the information about all of the benefits for which they are eligible.

Emergency food is not the answer to hunger. It is a temporary stop gap measure. It's the difference between a family having food on the table tonight and staring at the four walls and going hungry. Our intention is to make sure that everyone has dinner tonight...

DR: So it's a starting point...

AD: It's a starting point.

Getting somebody food stamps will get them much more food. Getting somebody their earned income tax credit, means that they will have the resources to walk into a grocery store and buy their own food with dignity. It's about moving people from one place to the next.

Bottom line is, nobody should need any of these programs. Everybody should be earning enough to afford their own food and housing expenses. But because you have minimum wage that is not keeping pace with the cost of living, medium wage not keeping pace, then you have social security for the elderly not even in the ball park of reality, we have to have these programs.

Just insert the notion about education...

DR: A hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?

AD: A hundred years from now we should have definitely created systems along the way that will allow people to maintain their dignity.

If we take better care of people by providing the basics – food, shelter, healthcare and education – we will have a much more productive society. When basic human rights are taken care of, people are free to create and innovate; to end wars...People will be free to evolve.

Thanks Áine!

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