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Q&A: Food Bank CEO Margarette Purvis talks NYC's hunger problem

Margarette Purvis

Margarette Purvis Credit: Margarette Purvis (Courtesy of the Food Bank for NYC)

Margarette Purvis, 39, is president and CEO of the Food Bank for New York City. She lives in Harlem.

Q. What would you most like to see changed or accomplished in NYC?

A. I'd like to see everyone get really angry that people still go hungry in this city. Instead of seeing hunger as a problem of "their" kids or seniors, we need to see everyone as "our" kids and seniors.

Q. How many people in NYC go hungry?

A. Three million New Yorkers struggle to afford food. We feed 1.5 million each year through 1,000 charities that are in our network in every neighborhood. 1.8 million New Yorkers are on food stamps, but even with food stamps, a lot of New Yorkers just don't have enough to get through until the end of the month.

Q. Yet, NYC also a dire obesity problem that steals the media spotlight. Explain that dichotomy, please.

A. We have an obesity problem because obesity is the flip side of malnutrition. Cheap food is bad food. If you have only a little bit of money, you're going to get the cheap stuff, and it's usually full of sodium and preservatives and stuff that's not good for you Good food should be more affordable for people. And accessible. Lots of New Yorkers don't have easy access to fruits and vegetables and meats.

Q. Was Occupy Wall Street successful in drawing attention to hunger?

A. No. Maybe when it first started, but so many other issues got piled on top of it. The movement got watered down.

Q. So what causes hunger in NYC?

A. We did a survey and found that while the incomes are going down, the cost of living is going up: More people have shifted down to the bottom due to lower wages while the costs for housing, health insurance, and everything just keep going up. Most of the people we serve are working. Homeless people are our smallest percentage. Just in the last year, 100,000 people New Yorkers moved from the middle class to being considered impoverished.

Q. How has the client population changed?

A. When we first opened - 30 years ago next January - we served a lot of single homeless men who found themselves on the street. Now it's full families - and not just single moms: We see so many more dads - especially veterans - coming into the pantries. Not the soup lines, but the pantries, where they weren't before! They're our hardest group to serve because of their pride. They're embarrassed to be in a line and want to do something in exchange for any help. Asian Americans are our fastest growing group. It was unheard of to see Asians in line in 2001 - 2002. They're seniors, primarily. Some people have said it's the underbelly of intermarriage, where they no longer have those traditional families to rely on. We've had to recruit for Mandarin speakers and Russian speakers.

Q. Who are the really great corporate citizens who help the Food Bank and deserve our support?

A. The list is thankfully long. I can't do a list because I don't want to leave out any of them. I'd get in trouble! But I will mention Target because they give us such a substantial amount of product and they allow our program to offer more than just rice and beans - deodorant, feminine hygiene products, diapers. As soon as those Pampers get on the shelves, they're gone! A lot of the grocery stores have been great. They often don't have the products to give us that they once did because they've reduced waste, but they'll do things at the cash register to engage the customer and get them to donate to the Food Bank. We can get five meals out of a single dollar because of our ability to bulk purchase.

Q. Where does the food come from?

A. Sixty to 70% of the food we get is government commodities. We are very rare in that most cities don't have a local government that gives food, but we do. The local and federal governments purchase food from local vendors and give it to us and we sort it, shelve it and deliver it. The state makes sure we have the money for low fat milk, lean meats and greet vegetables and also gives us a nutritionist: We don't want to put just anything in the bag.

Q. What are your favorite restaurants?

A. One of them is this really cozy place called Café Latte in Harlem. I go in there and it's like Cheers - everybody there knows my name. My job can be really intense, but there I'm just a chick in Harlem eating a tilapia sandwich. I also like this lounge called Cove. They have these grits that are topped with - what is it, I can't remember - but Lord, have mercy they're so good! I'm a Southern girl, born in Mississippi, so I need my grits.

Q. Some of us have problems enjoying meals at expensive restaurants, knowing how much that meal is worth in groceries. Do you have trouble enjoying them as well?

A. Of course I can enjoy them! (Chef) Mario Batali is on our board and whenever we are going to meet I think, "please, please, please have snacks!" Everyone on our board is a foodie: People who really enjoy food are the people most offended by the fact that there are people who don't have food. (Board member and chef) Tom Colicchio's mother was a cafeteria worker and he used to hear stories from her and that's how he got the bug to help. We no longer measure success in the number of pounds of food we give out: Now we talk about creating meals. . John Arnold, a big time food banker who has since died, used to say, "how hard do you want this organization to work if it was your family on line?"

Q. What's the most you've ever spent on a meal?

A. Being a Southern girl, I prefer a gentleman pay: I'm a little old fashioned that way. I probably have not had a bill for two that is over $200, including wine. I'm from the South and we're used to lots of food. I went to the Red Rooster - and the food was really, really good but I remember thinking, "there's not a whole lot of it!"

Q. The secret to how the rich stay thin! And what do you like most to eat?

A. They say you can tell a person's problems by looking at their plate. When you see catfish and collard greens and candied yams on mine, you now I'm really missing my gramma Annie Grace from Jackson, Mississippi.

Q. Were you ever hungry as a child yourself?

A. Praise God, no. We probably should have been, but we had a grandmother who was from a huge family and made sure we were all fed. I grew up thinking we were the black Kennedys. One day I saw this man selling eggs and said, "granddaddy: We have to give him some money: He's poor!" and my granddaddy said, "put that money back, child: WE'RE poor!" I couldn't believe it!

Q. You sure don't look poor now. In your picture you look like a glamorous model.

A. No one wants to make substantial gifts to the president of the Food Bank if she's in overalls. That doesn't work here: It's NYC!

Q. What's the best investment a New Yorker can make?

A. An investment in another person - volunteering or raising your voice on behalf of someone else. Or making sure your company is a good corporate citizen because the return on that investment will be a better city. Everyone around the world looks to New York City as an example, and having hunger here is a stain on our city. There aren't enough Disney characters to clean it out. The Food Bank is like a barn raising - neighbors helping neighbors.

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