Month: May 2024

Our Children Cannot Wait: Urgent Responses Needed for Housing and Hunger in Syracuse

Child hungry cover photo

Article Submitted by Maura Ackerman on behalf of the Syracuse-Onondaga Food Systems Alliance, a coalition of local changemakers dedicated to a more just and equitable food future in the Central New York region, in partnership with the undersigned individuals and organizations.

We, the undersigned individual citizens and advocates from 15 community agencies in Central New York, write to raise the alarm about the critical shortage of safe housing and the growing rates of hunger experienced by families in our midst – affecting our children most acutely. On June 13th, we will convene a nonpartisan candidate-community conversation exploring these issues with candidates running for 22nd Congressional District, New York State Senate’s 48th and 50th Districts, and New York State Assembly’s 126th, 127th, 128th, and 129th Districts. The persistent challenges of hunger, unstable housing, and poor health outcomes facing our neighbors are deeply interconnected. They require that we work collectively to demand solutions from those in positions of authority at the local, state, and federal level.

One local family’s story illustrates the interconnectedness of these problems.

They became houseless in November 2023, after their apartment was deemed uninhabitable by code enforcement and their landlord refused to make the required repairs. During their ensuing housing search, upon presenting their Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers, the family was met with credit checks and income limits that repeatedly disqualified them. Through the winter and spring, they moved from a relative’s home to a hotel and then, after calling 211, to a shelter. As their housing situation got complicated, so too did their access to nutritious food. The head of the household — who cares for her daughter, son, and grandson — feels guilty she couldn’t secure safe housing and provide for her family and wishes there were more avenues of recourse to meet her family’s needs.

This family’s struggles are far from unique.

Within Syracuse, approximately 61% of residents are renters, and over half of those renters are considered “extremely cost burdened,” meaning that they spend over half of their monthly income on rent. Earlier this year, the New York Times released an analysis of the cities with the highest rent increases in the country. Syracuse was first on the list, with a 22% one-year increase from 2022 into 2023. According to court records, evictions granted to landlords grew by 35% over that same period.

Children are vulnerable to the ways that poverty impacts access to both housing and food. Recent US Census data indicates that 45.8% of Syracuse city children live in households with incomes at or below the federal poverty level, ranking it second-highest for a big city in the United States. Within the Syracuse City School District (SCSD), the percent of students who qualify as McKinney-Vento – defined as lacking a fixed, regular, or adequate nighttime residence – doubled from 4% in 2021-2022 school year to 8% in 2022-2023 and has continued to rise during the current academic year. For children in families facing housing instability, access to food also becomes more difficult. For example, while living at the hotel, the family referenced earlier were far from a bus line and needed Ubers to grocery shop. Due to the increased cost of transportation and food, no longer having a kitchen, and with the uncertainty of where they may be living in the coming month, they now rely more on fast food than prior to their eviction. The impacts on the health of children and families living with the daily stressors of housing instability and food insecurity cannot be overstated.

“There is a significant body of evidence that demonstrates that household food insecurity is related not only to acute health problems, but also contributes to higher rates of chronic disease that may persist into adulthood; these include asthma, mental health diagnoses, eczema, obesity and even delayed medical care,” says Dr. Jenica O’Malley, a local pediatrician. “The added stress of living through the compounded traumas of poverty contributes to caregiver anxiety and depression which only further negatively affect children’s short- and long-term health outcomes.”

Within Onondaga County, 9.7% of the population experiences food insecurity, yet the rate is nearly double for children, at 17.3%. Food insecurity, as defined by the USDA, reflects a household’s limited or uncertain access to adequate food. If a family’s income is at or below 130% of the federal poverty level, or $39,000 annual gross income, children qualify for and receive free breakfast and lunch at schools. In SCSD, 85% of students meet these criteria, but their access to food becomes limited when they return home and during school breaks.

While New York state has not yet joined other states to pass Healthy School Meals for All, schools where 25% or more students qualify for free school breakfast and lunch can receive a designation to provide meals to all students. As a result, SCSD students receive free breakfast and lunch during the school day – and at 29 SCSD afterschool sites, a free supper, as well. To support students and families experiencing housing instability, SCSD and community partners such as the Food Bank of Central New York, United Way of Central New York, and the Salvation Army have partnered to provide “Gratitude Meal Kits,” supplemental food boxes for families during extended school holidays. These services, known as emergency food systems, act as a stopgap in situations of acute need, but are not always able to close the difference between a household’s food purchasing power and their nutritional needs. As more people come to depend on them, it becomes evident that we need solutions that preserve dignity and agency while addressing the root issues that place families in vulnerable positions.

SNAP is the nation’s largest food assistance program and has demonstrated its effectiveness in our efforts to combat both hunger and poverty. The Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, an indicator of economic well-being, indicates that SNAP lifted 4.6 million people out of poverty in 2015. While individuals may experience barriers in signing up for the program, the Food Bank of Central New York hosts a program to support SNAP enrollment, and just this year has started to partner with SCSD to refer eligible families for this support. Despite narratives to the contrary, fraud is rare. Research demonstrates that SNAP supports local communities, offering a strong “return on investment” by generating $1.79 of local economic activity for every SNAP dollar. Programs are emerging to amplify SNAP further. Incentive programs like Double Up Food Bucks increase SNAP customers’ buying power for fruits and vegetables. Summer EBT provides additional benefits to households that qualify for free or reduced school meals with children when school is not in session and school meals are unavailable. SNAP is critical to address food insecurity and poverty. Yet, the monthly benefit for a single person earning $18,930/year is just $23/month.

During 2020 and 2021, the government responded to the COVID-19 crisis by implementing a combination of policies to support food insecure households, particularly those with children: 1) the expansion of the Child Tax Credit, 2) increases to SNAP benefits, 3) Pandemic EBT (SNAP benefits in lieu of school meals while schools were closed), and 4) protections for renters. This combination of supports collectively made a meaningful difference in moving the needle on childhood food insecurity in 2020 and 2021. What’s more, emerging research suggests that preventative economic supports significantly impacted child welfare for the better. Pandemic era expansions have now expired. The emergency food and shelter system in Syracuse is struggling to absorb demand as household spending power is diminished and rates of houselessness and food insecurity rise.

We need to leverage our power as citizens to push for measures that would ease financial strain so our neighbors can reorganize their resources to re-attain security. The solutions to these complex problems will require concerted efforts that engage all members of our community.

As a starting point to enacting tangible supports, the Syracuse-Onondaga Food Systems Alliance (SOFSA), alongside a number of partner organizations, is preparing to host a Candidate-Community Dialogue on Hunger, Housing, and Health from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 13, at Living Waters Church, 121 Huron St, Syracuse. We invite members of the public to join this conversation about these urgent issues facing our community.


Organizational Signatories:

Maura Ackerman, Director, Syracuse-Onondaga Food Systems Alliance

Karen Belcher, Executive Director, Food Bank of Central New York

Anne C Bellows, Professor of Food Studies, Syracuse University

Beth A. Broadway, President/CEO, InterFaith Works of Central New York

Carolyn D. Brown, Executive Director, PEACE, Inc.

Taylor Deats, Market Manager, CNY Regional Market Authority

Scott Emery, Chief Strategy Officer, Healthy Alliance

Leif Frymire, Community Health Worker, Syracuse Northeast Community Center

Rebecca Garofano, School Dietitian, Syracuse City School District

Amy Haley-Canavan, Deputy Director, Women’s Opportunity Center

Jessi Lyons, Associate Executive Director, Brady Faith Center

Charles Madlock, Campaign Manager, Nourish Syracuse

Jess Miller, Founder, Kitchen Literacy Project

Caitlin Smith, Organizer, United Syracuse

Tylah Worrell, Executive Director, Urban Jobs Task Force of Syracuse


Individual Signatories:

Mary Carney (Eastside)

Elise Springuel (Memphis, NY)

Suzi Harriff (Manlius, NY)

Dr. Caitlin Toomey  (Skaneateles, NY)

Shelley Peabody (Eastside)

Adrianne Traub (Cortland, NY)

MoAde Jagusah (Southside)

Rick Welsh (DeWitt, NY)

Tim Bryant (Valley)

Ed Griffin-Nolan (Westside)

Amy Grover (Baldwinsville, NY)

Anna Zoodsma (Eastside)

Laura Jayne (Eastside)

Lisa Hart (Eastside)

Nick Piato (Lakefront)

Dr. Jenica O’Malley, DO  (Westside)

Todd Goehle (Southside)

Abigail Rumney (Nedrow, NY)

Charles Carrier (Westside)

Ivy Kleinbart (DeWitt, NY)

Rebecca Garden (New Woodstock, Ny)

Janine Jarvis  (Westside)

Qiana Williams (Eastside)