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Saturday, April 09, 2005

Hunger-Based Lines Lengthen at the Faith-Based Soup Kitchens

The 1,130 soup kitchen guests, as they're respectfully called, began gathering outside the church doors an hour early, curling around the corner in a long line to await a free main meal - their safety-net highlight in another day of being down and out, part of the working poor, or surviving somewhere in between.

The repast, at 2,500 calories a serving, steamed aromatically: chicken à la king, rice, buttered spinach, peaches. A staff member in the nave of the building, the Church of the Holy Apostles, cued dozens of volunteer helpers: "Ladies and gentlemen, it's showtime. Thanks be to God." And from Ninth Avenue in Manhattan, the diners flowed in.

The sight of masses of Americans gratefully chowing down on free food is indeed a show, an amazingly discreet one that is classified not as outright hunger but as "food insecurity" by government specialists who are busy measuring the growing lines at soup kitchens and food pantries across the nation. There were 25.5 million supplicants regularly lining up in 2002; they were joined by 1.1 million more the next year. And even more arrive as unemployment and other government programs run out.

Much as the diners at Holy Apostles peered ahead to see what was being dished up at the steam tables, soup kitchen administrators across the country are currently eying governments' trilevel budget season and wincing at all the politicians' economizing vows. They know that "budget tightening" eventually means longer lines outside their doors.

"It's a desperate thing," said the Rev. Bill Greenlaw, director of the Holy Apostles charity, one of the largest among 1,298 kitchens and pantries regularly helping more than one million residents in New York City. "Every level of government seems to have the same mantra, that these programs are vulnerable.

"We're bracing that all three levels of government are coming down at the same time."

Most immediately, food charities are pleading against further cuts in the federal emergency food and shelter program, which directly fights hunger. Last year, 48 soup kitchens closed in the city as supplies were exhausted, and hundreds of others reported to be making do by cutting back on daily portions.

Beyond that, however, administrators know that the myriad of severe program cuts looming in Washington - for everything from low-income wage supplements to health care spending for poor people - can only lead to further cuts down the revenue food chain in statehouses and city halls and, finally, longer lines of people silently begging for food.

The budget debate in the Republican-run Capitol presents a Hobson's choice between the House's five-year, $30 billion-plus in program cuts for the poor and the Senate's $2.8 billion in cuts - one-tenth the pain, but focused most heavily on nutrition programs. The compromise cuts are likely to lean toward the House, levying more than their fair budget share on the poor, even as President Bush and the G.O.P. leaders argue that still more upper-bracket tax cuts are somehow justifiable.

So Father Greenlaw can only turn to pleading for even more charity from the city's better-off residents.

According to a survey by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, seven out of 10 of the city's pantries and kitchens are "faith based," using the terminology of the Bush administration. But their besieged directors overwhelmingly warn that government, not charities, must take the lead if poverty is to be properly confronted.

"We're faith-based by the old rules, not the new ones," Father Greenlaw carefully noted. "We'll be feeding more guests unless and until society decides we don't have to tolerate a huge underclass in our cities."

In the meantime, the pungent scene in the nave at Holy Apostles is unabashedly hunger-based. People are being fed, not proselytized, at dining tables where the pews used to be. A midday hubbub of satiation rises up, plain as the pipes of the church organ, as the line lengthens outside.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company


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