A new documentary produced by Fordham’s Beck Institute on Religion and Poverty features three of New York City’s largest faith-based emergency food programs, which for decades have helped feed millions throughout the city.
Yet the directors of each program are quick to say that what they do is not much helping the problem of hunger.
On May 2, the program directors joined members of the Graduate School of Social Service (GSS) at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus to premiere the documentary Our Daily Bread: Feeding the Hungry in New York City, which was followed by a panel discussion about the film.
Moderated by Peter Vaughan, Ph.D., dean of GSS, the panel featured film director Dale Lindquist, D.Min., managing director of the Beck Institute, and the directors of the three emergency feeding programs featured in the film: Anthony Butler, of St. John’s Bread and Life in Bedford-Stuyvesant; the Rev. Elizabeth G. Maxwell, of Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen in the Chelsea section of Manhattan; and Doreen Wohl, of the West Side Campaign Against Hunger, run out of the Church of St. Paul and St. Anthony in Manhattan.
Each program began with someone knocking on the church doors asking for something to eat, and has since grown to include daily soup kitchens and mobile kitchens, food pantries, and local hubs that connect people with social services.
The fact that they have grown so dramatically, though, is alarming, program directors said. When Lindquist began filming the documentary in 2010, the West Side Campaign Against Hunger fed 34,000 families and provided food for 800,000 meals. Today, Wohl said, the organization serves 45,000 households and provides food for more than 1 million meals.
“I never let a group of volunteers come into [our organization]and leave thinking that we’re the right solution,” Wohl said. “I shock them by saying I think it’s terrible that we have to do this—that it’s not acceptable this day in age.”
Despite their comprehensive outreach efforts, these programs are not enough, Butler said. There must also be a robust political response that can chip away at the real problem, of which hunger is merely a symptom.
“Poverty is the problem, and the answer is justice,” Butler said. “We need to change the conversation. It’s not about throwing a few crumbs at people, or rescuing thrown-away food. There’s plenty of food. What there’s not enough of are jobs or fair housing.”
The solution must come from several angles, said Rev. Maxwell, because poverty is bound up with other national issues, such as an overcrowded prison industry, failing schools, and dwindling access to healthcare.
“It’s about how we spend our resources,” she said. “We need more than the response of the religious community—we need the political will to respond to this crisis.”
In addition to shedding light on the realities of hunger in New York City, Lindquist said that the film is meant to challenge societal prejudices against the poor, for instance, the notion that the poor do not make sufficient efforts to get out of poverty.
“There’s an assumption about who these people are, so I’m hoping this film will change assumptions,” Lindquist said.
The film features several firsthand accounts from visitors to the soup kitchens and food pantries, including a worker in St. John’s Bread and Life program, who had spent 25 years as one of the city’s homeless. One morning, while he was sleeping outside the church, a Bread and Life worker asked if he would like to help in the pantry. He now works as one of the managers.
His story, Lindquist said, is meant to show the inherent dignity of those who are usually the invisible members of society.
“We need to ask, ‘Who is my neighbor? Who is valuable?’ That’s the conversation we need to have,” Butler said.
(Watch a trailer from Our Daily Bread below)