Improving Nutrition for the Homeless
by CBJC Staff April 21, 2016
Alidia D. came to the legal clinic crying, “My little son is wasting away. He won’t eat the shelter food. When we entered this shelter his weight was at the 50th percentile, and now it has dropped to the 5th percentile. He is anemic.” She handed her pro bono attorney a letter from the child’s pediatrician that expressed deep concern about the toddler’s growth and development while in shelter.
The attorney was able to get the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) to transfer the young mother and child to a shelter where she could cook him child-friendly healthy meals. However, the episode made Lisa Pearlstein, Director of the City Bar Justice Center’s Legal Clinic for the Homeless (LCH), wonder how many other children refused to eat food served in New York City shelters and how that was impacting their health.
Pearlstein began asking LCH clients questions about their food experiences. She learned that at the intake site for families entering shelter, the City provides the same non-nutritious cold meat sandwich to children and adults for both lunch and dinner. Families can spend days at this office. Families placed in certain hotels were also served this same cold sandwich for months at every meal.
Furthermore, the pro bono lawyers under Pearlstein’s supervision had spent hours advocating for a restaurant allowance for their clients who reside in shelters that lack cooking facilities. The City’s welfare agency had no systematic way of ensuring that this special food allowance was added to the public assistance case of a household entering such a facility.
When Pearlstein learned that Barbara Turk, the Mayor’s Director of Food Policy, was speaking at a meeting of advocates about reducing hunger, she jumped at the chance to raise these issues with Turk. Turk was receptive, stating “All these issues are under my jurisdiction, and we must address them.” She called over a DHS administrator attending the meeting to hear Pearlstein’s concerns. After the meeting and follow-up communications between Pearlstein and DHS, the City convened “Partners to Improve Food Resources for DHS Clients.”
At the first meeting of the group on April 12, 2016, DHS announced it was hiring a nutritionist to guide the agency and its vendors in meal planning. The agency also announced its decision to diversify the cold meals served at the homeless family intake site and its commitment to begin serving child-friendly meals. DHS has also provided the welfare agency with an accurate list of non-cooking facilities to ensure the provision of restaurant allowance to all eligible households.
As soon as it is logistically feasible, DHS will begin to ask applicants for shelter about their family’s nutritional needs to ensure that households are placed in appropriate shelters that can accommodate these needs. For shelters that serve meals, DHS is reinforcing that bagged meals must be provided to residents who miss meals due to employment or other obligations.
The Partners will also explore options to bring healthy foods and vegetables to shelters in areas where it is difficult for shelter residents to access healthy affordable food. Hopefully, food options for homeless New Yorkers will continue to improve.
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