On East 11th Street between Avenues B and C in New York City’s East Village, the line for the Father’s Heart food pantry wraps around the block. On cold winter days, people bundle up in puffer coats to hold their place; they might be outside, standing still, for as long as three hours.
The surrounding neighborhood is hip, and expensive. Locals walk their dogs through Tompkins Square Park, sipping delicately crafted cappuccinos. Commuters hop on Citi Bikes and spin off to their jobs. Joggers pass by in designer gear. If they notice the line, they don’t acknowledge it.
“I should have asked them: how many of you know that this a food pantry line?” says the photographer Joey O’Loughlin.
“I think most Americans have an image of hunger that’s based on Dust Bowl images—Jacob Riis, the breadlines, Dorothea Lange’s photographs,” O’Loughlin adds. “So when it’s people who are wearing black or pink puffer coats, we don’t get it. When it’s people carrying their bags of food next to you on the subway, or talking on their phone, and they look like everybody else you see out in the city, we don’t get it. Hunger in this city is hidden.”
It’s something that O’Loughlin knows firsthand. Before she began photographing the pantries, she tells CityLab that she didn’t register the long lines, either. “I’ve been in New York for almost 20 years,” she says. “How did I not see them?”
There are over 600 food pantries in the five boroughs; 1.4 million New Yorkers rely on assistance from either pantries or soup kitchens to survive amid the city’s ever-escalting cost of living, says Carol Schneider, an associate director at Food Bank for New York City, which stocks the pantries. O’Louglin’s photographs, on display at the Brooklyn Historical Society through November 5 in the exhibition Hidden in Plain Sight: Portraits of Hunger in NYC, bring the reality out into the open.
And it’s not just in New York; nationwide, 14 percent of households are food insecure, 6 percent extremely so. Food insecurity affects every county, every congressional district. Even in Loudon County, Virginia, the wealthiest district in America and one of eight counties with a median income of over $100,000 per year, more than 10,000 children are affected by low food security.
O’Loughlin visited around 40 pantries throughout the city and in the end, focused on ten, where she spent three years photographing and talking to people in line and those serving them. As she grew more invested in her project, she would tell people about it. “But they’d say, ‘Oh, I know food pantries. They’re for homeless people,’” she says.
Food pantries tell a complicated story. There were people with advanced degrees, O’Loughlin says; people who were students or artists. There were crossing guards, parks department employees, doormen, home health aids. There were people who had long been unemployed; people in their 40s and 50s who had once held jobs in advertising or middle management, but could no longer find work. The assumption is that people on these lines are unemployed, Schneider says. But one in five are working, many at more than one job. It’s just not enough.
“The city is relentless,” O’Loughlin says. Many subsidy programs, such as for housing or health care, require applicants to jump through hoops, O’Loughlin adds. There are waitlists and forms. For the food pantries, you just have to show up. There are rules—you can only visit a pantry on your designated day, for example—but many people register at more than location and wait in different lines throughout the month.
“It all comes down to a balance,” O’Loughlin says. “What does it say that all of these people have calculated that it’s worth the travel time and the waiting time to get these bags?” The food bags, she adds, were originally intended as emergency provisions for people in the aftermath of a crisis like a house fire. Now, they’re something that people consistently factor in when managing their monthly resources. Crisis has become the norm.
“The food pantries are a wonderful thing,” O’Loughlin says. “The donated food allows for a sense of family, a sense of safety, in a very harsh economic climate.” But still, she adds, there has to be another solution: one that will directly address the poverty and low wages that necessitate the food lines.
It is no coincidence that O’Loughlin’s photos have gone up on exhibit during an election year. “This is an issue that cuts through all layers of society,” she says. Following the November 2013 bill that cut funding to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the pantries themselves, Schneider adds, have been stretched to full capacity; O’Loughlin’s photographs show a bandage at its breaking point. “People just have to get paid enough,” O’Loughlin says. “Nobody wants to stand on the lines.”