Foodlink’s statement at the NYS Assembly hearing on tenant protections and housing affordability

The following is testimony of Tom Silva, Community Advocacy Coordinator, Foodlink Inc., delivered at the Public Hearing on Rental Housing & Tenant Protections on May 10, 2019 in Rochester.

Who We Are

Thank you for this opportunity to comment on the vital issue of rent and eviction protections for tenants in New York State.  My name is Tom Silva, and I am the Community Advocacy Coordinator at Foodlink here in Rochester. Foodlink is a community food resource center and the Feeding America food bank serving Allegany, Genesee, Livingston, Monroe, Ontario, Orleans, Seneca, Wayne, Wyoming, and Yates counties. Our mission is to leverage the power of food to end hunger and build healthier communities.

Foodlink is the backbone of the emergency food network in Rochester and the ten surrounding counties. We work with hundreds of partner organizations to distribute over 18 million pounds of food annually in our service area. This network of food pantries, homeless shelters, and hot meal programs work to ensure that everyone who walks through their door is fed and nourished. Our community kitchen produces over 3,500 meals every day for low-income children across the city of Rochester. The Curbside Market, our farmers market on wheels, visits over 80 locations every week and conducted over 40,000 transactions last year for fresh produce. The majority of these market sites are affordable housing communities.

Why We Are Here

Despite all of our resources, partners, and programs – the food insecurity rate in our region remains stubbornly high. Food insecurity refers to USDA’s measure of lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods. Food insecurity often reflects a household’s need to make trade-offs between important basic needs, such as paying rent, and purchasing nutritionally adequate foods.

Across our ten county service area, Feeding America estimates that more than 11% of households, or 145,000 people, are food insecure. 92,000 of those households are in Monroe County. Right here in the City of Rochester, the rate jumps to 25%. In the poorest zip codes, such as 14608, that number jumps again to 40%.

At the same time, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, 52% of renters in the Rochester metro area are rent burdened – meaning they spend over 30% of their income on housing. 30% are severely rent burdened – meaning they spend over 50% of their income on housing. This amounts to over 75,000 individuals in the metro area who are in a state of crisis in their housing. Here in the City of Rochester, 65% of residents are renters. These figures are almost exactly the same as the New York City metropolitan area, but Western New York lacks equivalent tenant protections.

The statistics I’ve shared about food insecurity and housing stability are not isolated – they are the same households, individuals, and families. Charitable and programmatic solutions to food insecurity can only do so much if our community members do not have stable housing to store, prepare, and cook their own meals. If we are serious about ending hunger in our community, we must ensure that people have guaranteed tenant protections and access to affordable housing. Without this, we cannot expect people to meet their nutritional needs on a daily basis. We cannot expect people to manage diet related illness without their kitchens. And we cannot expect children to succeed in school without nutritious food at home.

What We Ask

Because we cannot eliminate hunger without addressing the housing crisis faced by our community, we have come to give public testimony today in support of a series of bills and actions to increase tenant protections and affordability. Foodlink endorses the Universal Rent Control platform of the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance. We also strongly support the Home Stability Support proposal (A01620) for expanded rent  assistance subsidies for families receiving public assistance and the rest of the alliance’s End Homelessness platform. Additionally, we strongly support the proposal(A03611) to remove geographic restrictions from Human Services sanctions reform to allow a reconciliation period for individuals who have missed a single appointment before being barred from receiving public benefits. Currently, this policy only applies to New York City, despite Monroe County having one of the state’s highest sanction rates. These sanctions are punitive to the lowest income and most at risk members of our community. When these payments are revoked, it leads to hunger for families and often leads to the commencement of eviction proceedings, which then increases the client’s reliance on the social services safety net due to their need for emergency food and shelter.

Many households in the state will be best served by expanding the Emergency Tenant Protection Act (A7046) to allow counties to opt into rent stabilization for their municipalities. However, this would only apply to buildings with 6 or more units and regions with a vacancy rate below 5%. As the data shows, even in Western New York, tens of thousands of tenants are rent burdened despite a vacancy rate slightly above the threshold for stabilization. Passing new Good Cause Eviction Legislation (A5030) will not necessarily regulate rents, but rather prevent tenants from being evicted from their home at the whim of a landlord. It would require that landlords always offer tenants a renewal lease and forbid the renewal leases to demand an “unconscionable rent.” Under the proposal, a rent would be considered unconscionable if it represented an increase by more than 1.5 times the rate of inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index and if the landlord could not provide a reason to justify it. It would apply to all rented houses and apartments – except apartments in two- or three-family houses where the owner also resides. Specifically, it would provide renters in our region with an immediate increase in protection and security in their housing.

For these reasons, Foodlink urges you to pass Good Cause Eviction protections throughout New York State, as well as the other bills supported by the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance. Thank you for your time today.

Impact story: Meet Michael Washington

As part of Walmart’s 2019 “Fight Hunger. Spark Change” campaign, we wanted to share with you one perspective from a food pantry client of Rochester Family Mission — one of the 200+ emergency food providers in Foodlink’s network.

Michael wanted to share his story, and tell us how grateful he was for the support of the pantry, as to tries to get back on his feet. Here is what he had to say:

“When we have good people that help people by the grace of God and the spirit of God, they try to help the community, and give more than what they have to give … This church here is a blessing and I thank you for listening to me and having the patience to hear me.

“I’m staying with a friend right now, and my friend has three kids. I don’t want to take food out of a child’s mouth. I’m just blessed that they let me stay there until I can find a job. I’m a hard-working man and I don’t ask for nothing and I work for everything I get. But I come here so I can get help as I look for a job, to help myself — that means a lot.”

City, Foodlink celebrate grand opening of Public Market’s Nutrition Education Center

Foodlink’s nutrition educators took center stage at the City of Rochester Public Market on Thursday, helping to mark the grand opening of the market’s new Nutrition Education Center.

The new kitchen space, located inside Shed B, will host a variety of community nutrition and culinary programs, including Foodlink’s weekly Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables workshops. Each Thursday and Saturday morning (9 and 10 a.m.), Foodlink educators Marcy McMahon and Desiree Bass share recipes, nutrition lessons and shopping tips to encourage market patrons to adopt healthier eating habits with a limited budget.

The City of Rochester and Foodlink were key partners in this venture, along with Wegmans Food Markets, the Friends of the Public Market, State Sen. Joe Robach, and Summit Federal Credit Union. Mitch Gruber, a City Council member and Foodlink’s Chief Programs Officer, has long been a fan of the market, both for its rich history and for what it has evolved into today.

“This is the biggest market in the entire nation when it comes to SNAP transactions — formerly food stamps — by a significant margin,” Gruber said. “There’s no market that comes close to serving as many people with SNAP benefits, which is why it’s so important for us at Foodlink to come here and give people the skills to cook.”

Just Say Yes is one of three nutrition education programs delivered by Foodlink throughout the Rochester area. Cooking Matters is a six-week course that caters to various age groups, while Finger Lakes Eat Smart New York is a program designed for SNAP recipients that focuses on eating more fruits and vegetables, reducing consumption of sugary beverages, and exercise.

Mayor Lovely A. Warren said the market’s new Nutrition Education Center “adds value to the Public Market, making it a place where you can buy healthy, affordable food, learn how to prepare it, and enjoy being a part of a community that’s excited about good food.”

Annual ‘Map the Meal Gap’ report released with updated food-insecurity data

Feeding America this week released its annual Map the Meal Gap report, which shows food-insecurity data for every county in the country.

Within Foodlink’s 10-county service area, more than 145,000 people — about 11.5 percent of the population — live in food-insecure households, according to the report. Of those people, approximately 48,000 are children.

MAP: Explore the data from the ‘Map the Meal Gap’ report

In Monroe County, 12.4 percent of the population — more than 92,000 people — are food-insecure, which the USDA defines as “a lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.”

Among the other nine counties in Foodlink’s service area, the food-insecurity rates, from low to high, were as follows: Ontario (9%), Wayne (9.8%), Yates (9.9%), Seneca (10.3), Genessee (10.5%), Wyoming (10.5%), Livingston (10.9%), Orleans (11.8%), and Allegany (12.4%). The average meal cost ranged from $2.47 in Yates county, to $3.29 in Allegany County.

The study also shows a large portion of the population that is considered food-insecure, yet are not eligible for federal nutrition programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Those rates range from 22% in Yates County to 39% in Livingston County.

Nationally, Rural and Southern communities are disproportionately impacted. Eight of the top ten states with the highest percentage of child food insecurity are all located in the South. Additionally, 84% of the counties with high child food insecurity rates are rural.

The number of Americans identified by the USDA as food insecure fell significantly in the past seven years in the wake of the Great Recession. The national rate peaked at 50 million in 2009 to 40 million in 2017 (the most recent year for which data are available).

“The Feeding America nationwide network of food banks is investing in our nation’s future by helping to provide over 146 million meals to children every year,” said Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, chief executive officer of Feeding America. “Still, Map the Meal Gap highlights that more must be done. Together food banks, corporations, policymakers, donors, volunteers and advocates can solve hunger.

“I encourage everyone to visit the website, to find out what hunger looks like in their community and get involved to be part of the solution,” Babineaux-Fontenot continued. “One way is to tell Congress to invest in kids during Child Nutrition Reauthorization legislation and increase access to food for kids during the summer. Your voice matters and we can make a difference.”