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A Tsunami of Hunger Looms on the Horizon

The new working poor, as well as more families with young children, are threatening to overwhelm New York City's last hunger safety net.

A crisis is brewing and Carlos Rodriguez sees it in ever longer lines. "More work boots with plaster or paint on them," he says. "Guys clearly coming in from the work site."

A spokesperson for the Food Bank for New York City, Rodriguez has experienced tough times before, but not like this. "It takes a lot of pride for a New York construction worker to stand on the soup kitchen line. That's something I never saw, even during 9/11, during that recession."

Here, on a quiet, tree-lined section of 116th Street in Manhattan, it's possible to see the financial crisis that has the planet in its grip up close and personal. The new working poor, as well as more families with young children, are threatening to overwhelm New York City's last hunger safety net.

And the hungry lining up on this street today may be only a harbinger of things to come. Behind them, in an increasingly hard-pressed city, a potential tsunami of need threatens to swamp the entire system. The one million-plus needy New Yorkers of today could, according to those experienced in feeding the poor, explode into tomorrow's three million hungry mouths with nowhere else to turn.

Three million -- and right in the heart of the country's financial capital.

If this potential nightmare comes to be, it will be played out, in part, behind the nondescript storefront of the Food Bank's Community Kitchen and Food Pantry of West Harlem and the more than 1,000 allied food pantries, soup kitchens, senior centers, low-income daycare centers, shelters and other partner programs spread across the city's five boroughs.

In Harlem, in the late afternoon, the needy begin to congregate beneath a green awning that reads "Food Change": hungry New Yorkers without other options, men and women, young and old, black, white, Asian, and Hispanic -- a full spectrum of need.

On a recent afternoon, I saw it first hand. By 3 pm, they were beginning to patiently gather. By 4 pm, the line already stretched half a block and was just starting to wrap around the corner of 116th Street onto Frederick Douglass Boulevard. By 5 pm, the tables in the Community Kitchen were already full, yet the queue out on the street was still sizeable. "It's pretty typical," Rodriguez told me. "This is very representative of what we're seeing and hearing throughout our network."

Two Million New Mouths to Feed

In 2007, even before the current financial meltdown hit, approximately 1.3 million New Yorkers depended on soup kitchens and food pantries. A poll by the Food Bank in late 2008, however, revealed something far more startling: one in four New Yorkers said they lacked savings to fall back on and, if they lost their jobs, would be in immediate need of food assistance. This is an especially worrisome figure as the rate of job loss in the city has been quickening over the last year, with an ever-weakening construction industry taking an especially hard hit, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While hard numbers aren't yet available, the Food Bank has already seen double-digit increases in need since it took that poll -- high double digits at some food pantries and soup kitchens.

"That means two million people on the fringe of our network may need to access our services at one point or another," says Rodriguez. "We're barely meeting demand for who we're serving now. What do we do if those two million don't get back on their feet on time, exhaust their savings and any alternatives, and then have to start accessing emergency food? It's a major concern."

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