Education / Food

PS 48 lends hands to fill Hunts Point’s meal gap

Naiche Parker

Second graders Tatiana Hudson and Michael Mendez, along with fifth grader Yanziel Lagara, waited to receive the bags of staples at PS 48.

Food Bank partners with school to feed local families

As he raced through the PS 48 gymnasium, fourth grader Jaril Smalls stopped short and did a double take when he saw the blue bags. They covered tables and rolling carts, spilled from chairs onto the floor. In fact, he was so distracted by the sea of blue plastic that he ran straight into parent coordinator Sandra DeJesus.

“Where are you supposed to be?” she asked him. Her tone tried for menacing, but the amused smile on her face and her bright blue “Best Parent in the Universe” T-shirt betrayed her.

“Are these the same bags we got last time?” Jaril replied, still entranced by the blue bags.

DeJesus nodded. She was prepared to send the boy on his way when he interrupted her once again.

“Can I take mine now?” he asked, eyes so bright and eager, that DeJesus only hesitated a moment before relenting. Jaril ran over to the pile of bags and made a grand selection as if they weren’t all identical. He then hugged DeJesus and thanked her before racing back up the stairs.

From the boy’s reaction, the bright blue bags might have contained video games, new toys or any number of things that would strike the interest of an average 10-year-old boy. But instead they were filled with donated boxes of oatmeal, mac and cheese mix, juice pouches and other non-perishable goods. A crew of five parent volunteers, along with DeJesus, had spent Feb. 27 packing 1,000 bags for the students of the Joseph Rodman Drake School.

Hunts Point is a hot spot for what experts call the “meal gap,” the number of meals families are forced to miss due to poverty. The neighborhood is labeled a bright orange on the New York City Food Bank’s meal gap map, representing a missing six million meals in the area per year, or an estimated 10 meals per month per person.

“There are students who won’t eat the entire weekend,” said DeJesus. “Twenty-seven percent of kids, most of them in temporary housing, don’t have enough to eat outside of school. That’s why this is so important.”

DeJesus was prompted to action when she observed a disconnect between the average Hunts Point family and the district’s existing food programs. Soup kitchens and seasonal dinners for the homeless hosted by organizations like City Harvest are not aimed at working parents, who are often working long hours but are still unable to make ends meet to put dinner on the table nightly.

The Food Bank addressed the issue recently, when the organization announced hunger relief programs targeted specifically for families, acknowledging that one efficient way to deliver food is to send it home from school with kids.

According to the Citizens Committee for Children’s 2015 report, the well-being of Hunts Point kids is at higher risk than that of those in any other one of the city’s 59 districts. It is an area where, combined with neighboring Mott Haven, 59 percent of children are living under the poverty line.

Parents at PS 48 banded together for the first time to distribute food on Feb. 6, after DeJesus made a few calls to the Food Bank distribution warehouse in Hunts Point – which is located within the city’s biggest produce market just a mile from the school. The first packing was so successful, DeJesus decided to try to organize it twice a month.

Food bank workers unloaded the food around 8 a.m., and the team of volunteers started packing supplies for the school’s 900 students, calling them downstairs grade by grade to pick up their bags. If a student in temporary housing was absent, DeJesus delivered the bags herself later that day.

“We start at 9 a.m. and go until there isn’t anything left to give,” DeJesus said.

The macaroni seemed to be a crowd pleaser.

“The food fed everyone in my family for four days,” said second grader Michael Mendez. “But the mac and cheese is what I ate first. That was my favorite.” When asked what improvements could be made to the bags, he and classmate Tatiana Hudson came to a consensus: five more boxes of mac and cheese.

While the meal gap problem can’t just be solved by snack packs on a few Friday afternoons, it’s a start. DeJesus hopes to at least bring awareness to the community. What parents are doing at PS 48 can be done by any family in a household that has enough food to give.

“It’s all about helping out our kids in the community and making sure they’re not hungry tonight and that they’re getting good nutrition at the same time,” said PS 48 parent volunteer Chanel Martino. “I think that every Bronx school and every parent should be doing this, too. Because at the end of the day, it’s a parent’s job to feed their kids.”

Of course, there are external solutions that, with a continued effort, might come together. According to its website, the Hunts Point Cooperative Market grosses $2 billion annually and is the city’s produce distribution hub. Neighborhood advocates have suggested that the market could give back to the area it calls home by donating produce to its neighbors, especially given the short supply chain.

Back at the PS 48 auditorium, Shameeka Anderson got some assistance from her young daughter Kahmora Anderson-Whyte who, at barely 4 feet tall, was heaving bags like a pro. Fifth grader Yanziel Lagara said helping others should be second nature.

At lunch recently, Yanziel noticed that his friend was hungry, “so I gave him half of what I was having for lunch,” he said. “It’s good to do that when you have and someone doesn’t.”

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