By Flonia Telegrafi
Spanish Evangelical feeds growing numbers
Every Friday morning, a parade of people minding colorful shopping carts fills the sidewalk along Thurman Munson Way. At any time, someone strolling along the sidewalk can hear Spanish, English, French and Quechua being spoken.
Women, some with small children, and men, young people and the elderly start lining up at 8 a.m. and continue to arrive throughout the day. While most people come from nearby, some come from as far as Manhattan and Queens.
In single file, they push their carts into the parking lot of the Bronx Spanish Evangelical Church where they fill them with vegetables, fruits, bread and cereal.
On a recent Friday, Rev. Jose Torres of the United Chaplains of New York came to the pantry to collect food for his elderly, homebound neighbors.
Patricia, a local resident who lost her job over a year ago, came because she relies on the produce she gets from the pantry and saves her food stamps to buy meat.
Ernesto, a resident of Manhattan who has been coming to the pantry for the past two years, came because he does not make enough money to afford groceries. (Neither gave a last name.)
This weekly tradition that draws hundreds of people began in 1994, when Danilo LaChapel, a member of Spanish Evangelical, founded Give Them to Eat Ministries, a program that runs a food pantry and soup kitchen, providing groceries and hot meals.
LaChapel, the director of the ministry, recalls how the church “exploded” with people when the pantry opened. By its second day, after word had spread about the program, 954 people showed up, he said.
For LaChapel, a longtime Mott Haven resident, the overwhelming response was a reminder of “the social decomposition plaguing the South Bronx during the early ‘90s, a period of serious drug addictions, alcoholism, high unemployment and poverty.”
Now, LaChapel says, renewed hard economic times have caused the number of people seeking food from the ministry to triple. He cites rising rents and higher food prices, leading more people to rely on the program to eat.
One such individual is Margie Lebron, 62, who has volunteered with the ministry for the past two years. Lebron works full-time at a local beer distribution center, despite her deteriorating eyesight. Every day she pushes herself to keep working because she does not want to end up homeless.
Her monthly take home pay is not enough to cover her $1,100 rent, utilities, transportation and groceries. Two years ago, with no food in her home, and in spite of her pride, she was forced to go to the soup kitchen. There she met Lachapel, who invited her to become a member of the church.
LaChapel relies on dedicated volunteers like Lebron to run the pantry and soup kitchen, as well as the ministry’s senior and youth programs. There are 40 volunteers in all, ranging in age from 35 to 65. The group is made up of local residents, and includes members of Spanish Evangelical and of other churches, as well as non-Christians.
For Ines Contreras, 53, who has volunteered with the ministry for over 14 years, her work has allowed her to serve her community while also serving God. Alma Montes came to Give Them to Eat Ministries because of her Christian faith, to work with people who are in need. Alfredo Carrion, who came to the ministry five months ago after losing his job as a superintendent, says that volunteering fulfills his “need to keep working and moving.”
Give Them to Eat Ministries receives food from numerous organizations, including the Food Bank for New York City, City Harvest, United Way and Food For Survival. Kim Keller, the director of member services at the Food Bank, which has been supplying the ministry since it opened its doors, confirms a “93 percent increase of first-time users among its member organizations” citywide.
The Food Bank’s “NYC Hunger Experience 2010” report found that 68 percent of people earning less than $25,000 would not be able to afford food within three months of losing their income, a figure that is up from 24 percent in 2009.
With the median household income in Mott Haven at $21,362, the report’s findings suggest a bleak outcome if the unemployment rate were to rise.
The Food Bank also faces drastic cuts to its food supply. In June, the U.S. House of Representatives cut funds for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) by $3 billion from last year’s levels. If the cuts remain in the final legislation, due for adoption in December, “10 million meals would be lost,” according to Keller. “Private donations would not be able to recoup the loss,” she says.
LaChapel worries about the future. Not only is demand growing, but at times it has been difficult for the church to keep the program going because it does not receive sufficient funds to run the heat and electricity needed to accommodate so many people.
“We as a church can only do so much,” LaChapel says. “The problem of the poor must be resolved by the government.”