South Asian organization addresses hunger, food insecurity in New York City

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On any given Friday between 11 am and 4 pm, nearly 90 to 100 people line up at the doors of the South Asian Council for Social Services’ food pantry in Flushing, some of them way before the doors open, to get food for their families.

Since the food pantry serving South Asian items opened in July last year, the SACSS says it is witnessing a rise in the number of people needing to supplement their food supplies and accessing its food pantry services.

They are registered with the organization so the size of their families is known. “A family of four get more food than one with fewer members, or more members,” Sudha Acharya, founder of SACSS and its head, told Desi Talk.

While food pantries exist in the city, SACSS says they do not provide items that are essential to the South Asian palate such as dals and spices.

To meet this unaddressed need, and to provide culturally appropriate food, SACSS started the only South Asian Food pantry last July. Within this short period, 631 individuals, including 115 children and 129 seniors have registered and are availing of this service, SACSS says.

Out of the total, “About 40 to 50 percent of them are Indians,” Acharya said. “The unfortunate thing is the numbers are rising. Every week we are seeing more.”

Clients come from all over Queens and even Brooklyn. Some families have been referred by other community based organizations including 8 families that have experienced domestic violence and are trying to rebuild their lives. “Our goal is to provide this service to those who hold diverse religious beliefs and speak different languages and serve them regardless of their immigration status,” SACSS says.

The inspiration for staring the food pantry came when two years ago, a woman (not identified by name), who was terminally ill with cancer, came for help, Acharya recalls. She had no resources at all, and she spoke only Telugu. The SACSS took her to a pantry “But there was not a single thing she could take from there. She told us she only wanted a little rice and dal and would cook herself,” Acharya. It brought home the need for culturally appropriate food.

Now, within a year, “People have come to know of our efforts and some are referred by others. ” There’s the case of Mallika (not real name) who came from Brooklyn, a domestic abuse victim, with few resources. “While she had so many things to take care of, food is a basic thing and we are helping her with that,” Acharya said.

Then there’s the Shah family (not real name) of 7 members, with seniors in indifferent health. Their income is so little, $800, out of which they pay $600 in rent, Acharya says. “Mrs. Shah can’t get a job, but she cleans houses to get some money. So they need this type of support. There are many such people.”

Among the many foods that are distributed are rice, ata, toor dal, and spices.

“It’s the unemployed, the single person, people with families,” Acharya says, across the spectrum.

The NYC Food Assistance Program provided the initial capacity building grant to renovate the basement at SACSS, and to acquire the necessary equipment for the pantry. The city’s Emergency Food Assistance Program has been providing the basic food items. Fresh produce is supplied by City Harvest. And SACSS has applied to become a member of the Food Bank.

The South Asian food items are being donated by community members.

Founded in 2000, SACSS was established with the goal of empowering and integrating underserved South Asians and other immigrants into the economic and civic life of New York, the organization says.

Apart from the South Asian Food Pantry, the organization provides we assistance with access to healthcare, senior services, other benefits and civic engagement. It holds basic and advanced English and computer classes. All programs are free and are provided by culturally competent staff members who speak Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, Punjabi, Gujarati, Kannada, Marathi, Malayalam, Nepali, Tamil, Telugu, and Spanish.