Philip Bennett outside his Brooklyn home. Photo: Andrea Pineda-Salgado

Food insecurity continues to be an unfortunate side effect of the pandemic, with the city’s most vulnerable suffering high rates. New Yorkers with disabilities, specifically those with physical disabilities, have found it increasingly difficult not just to access food but to access food emergency services as well. Before the pandemic, New Yorkers with disabilities were already disproportionately food insecure. Currently, 28% of New Yorkers with disabilities live in poverty, twice the rate of non-disabled New Yorkers. 

Stuck where you live

One of the biggest challenges New Yorkers with disabilities face in accessing food is being limited to the food options available where they live. Jeff Peters, director of communications at the Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York (CIDNY), says New Yorkers with disabilities often live in food and transit deserts. A food desert is an urban area where it is difficult to buy affordable or high-quality fresh food, while a transit desert is an area with limited access to public transportation.

“We have a lot of people who are relegated to the areas in which they live,” Peters says. “They may live in a community that does not have an adequate grocery store. They may be shopping at corner stores or bodegas that take the place of a supermarket. In some cases, places like the dollar store, a 7-Eleven or a convenience store are used for nutrition.” 

Philip Bennett, 66, is one of these New Yorkers. He has a cognitive disability and Parkinson’s disease, which has limited his mobility. It’s difficult for him to move his hands and it’s increasingly difficult to walk. Bennett used to work as a home health aide but retired after discovering he had Parkinson’s. 

Bennett depends on the food distributed within a three- to four-block radius of his house in Brooklyn. Due to Parkinson’s, he cannot walk more than a few blocks at a time, much less carry a bag of groceries. The closest sources of nutrition for him are a McDonald’s and a deli, which are both around a four-minute walk; the nearest supermarket is a 10-minute walk. Bennett lives in Marine Park, Brooklyn, where only two buses are within walking distance, the B100 and B2; however, the nearest subway station is a 35-minute walk.

“I cannot walk long distances. It’s very uncomfortable for me to walk more than three blocks. I have balance issues and my body doesn’t move quite as subtly as it used to,” Bennett says. “I can no longer even tie a shoelace.”

Bennett instead relies on the food given to him by the Meals on Wheels program. Every day he receives one meal, usually some sort of turkey dish, macaroni or vegetable salad, a carton of low-fat milk, a container of juice, a slice of bread and a piece of fruit. Most days, this is his only meal.

“Meals on Wheels gives you enough so you won’t really starve, but I’ve lost a lot of weight since I started,” he says. “The food is pretty good, but the main thing is that they don’t give you enough. I guess you should try to get yourself invited to family dinners. I’d rather just get all my food so as not to be a problem or burden for other people.”

Alice Crespo, founder of Helping Hands For The Disabled of NYC, says that New Yorkers with disabilities primarily rely on home-delivery food pantries.

“A lot of food pantries are at churches, which means there is usually a flight of stairs down. [Some New Yorkers with disabilities] can’t get down there; if no one comes up for them, they can’t take the food,” she says. “For most of [the people I help], it’s almost impossible to get food. How would they carry that stuff back? Or if you have a wheelchair, it’s not that easy.”

Government-funded programs leave some gaps

While many government-funded programs can help alleviate these challenges, significant gaps remain that New Yorkers with disabilities cannot fill on their own. For example, many people with physical disabilities use Access a Ride, and while this service can be beneficial, it is not without issues.

“If you are in a place like a transit desert and you use paratransit, you are at the behest of ‘Does the paratransit driver show up? Did you remember to make a reservation?’” says Peters. “To use paratransit, you must schedule your ride 24 hours in advance. It’s not easy [for a person with a disability] to say, ‘I forgot milk, maybe I can call an Uber, pick up milk and come back home.’”

When it comes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Crespo says that often benefits are not enough because people are very limited as to what they can buy with the money. 

“If you have food stamps, you can’t buy many things. Let’s say you wanted to buy a ham and eggs sandwich — you can’t because they don’t allow you to buy already cooked food,” she says. 

This can be problematic for some people with disabilities like Bennett, who due to their limited hand mobility prefer buying pre-cooked food. 

“It’s not easy to make my own food because I have problems with my hands. It takes me 30 minutes to change my pants,” Bennett says. “Once in a while, I’ll get a prepared sandwich from the deli or McDonald’s.”

Staying qualified for SNAP benefits can be a double-edged sword; if you find a better paying job you can lose your benefits.

“We’ve heard of some instances where people may have received a paycheck that put them over the [SNAP benefits] threshold, but even though it is not enough to take care of [their expenses], they may end up losing a benefit,” Peters says.

Health insurance has similar issues. Bennett is currently on Medicare, and even though he has a difficult time accomplishing what some may think of basic tasks (cooking, cleaning, shopping), he doesn’t qualify for a home aide to provide assistance. The effects of Parkinson’s will worsen, and when that day comes, Bennett will have to switch to Medicaid to receive a home aide. However, to qualify, he must give up his life-time savings by putting it in a trust

In order to qualify for Medicaid and receive the help of a full-time home care worker Bennett cannot have too many assets, which include the money in his lifetime savings account. Having more than $16,800 in assets does not get you approved for benefits. His only option is to put those assets in a trust. 

“I feel bitter and frustrated because other countries have programs like Medicaid and they don’t force you to impoverish yourself,” Bennett says. 

Other benefits, such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), aren’t perfect either. The monthly funds are often too low to have a real impact. Bennett currently depends entirely on SSI and receives $1,200 a month. He often finds himself cutting back on necessities to save money. 

“I keep off the heat in my house and I hardly ever run the water,” he says. “If I had to pay rent, I definitely would not be able to live in New York.”

The pandemic is not over

While many New Yorkers are eager to move on and return to a pre-pandemic world, there is a large population that benefits from the pandemic emergency services and restrictions. 

Bennett, for example, lives across from a public school. When the pandemic began, he could pick up a bag of food there every day, no questions asked. This offered him a lifeline; he didn’t have to walk far and the bag was small enough to carry home. But when Covid-19 cases dropped, this pandemic-era benefit was no longer available.

“During the pandemic, things were a lot simpler. I lived across the street from the school that gave free meals every weekday. You were allowed to take up to three bags and I had enough food to get by,” Bennett says . “As the pandemic winded down, I started getting food from two different sources. Meals on Wheels and a program called ‘Get Food.’ They stopped delivering the Get Food packages, so now all I rely on is Meals on Wheels.”

Peters also noted that the disappearance of masks has caused uncertainty among immunocompromised New Yorkers with disabilities. 

“Covid-19 is not over and it can be nearly just as dangerous for a certain segment of folks, especially the immunocompromised,” Peters says. “With the loosening of vaccine and mask mandates, people don’t know when they’re going into a store, restaurant, or public space, if those around them have been vaccinated or boosted when they are not wearing masks. These people are fearful of what they may run into.”

How to Help:

“People with disabilities are often one of the last segments of the population invited to conversations,” Peters says. “Understanding and committing to improvement will benefit everybody as a whole. When we provide benefits or services to people with disabilities, we are benefiting everybody.”

Here are ways you can help make a difference:

Center for Independence of the Disabled 

  • Donate. Your donation will allow CIDNY to continue to help people with disabilities with urgent health care needs, food support, housing, employment, transportation and many other essential services.
  • Attend a virtual nutrition workshop. If you or someone you know needs help preparing a healthy meal, attend a workshop. CIDNY has partnered with Stellar Farmers Markets to offer workshops with tips on healthy eating and easy-to-make fall recipes. A calendar with events can be found here

Helping Hands for the Disabled NYC

  • Volunteer. Are you able to help run errands, read mail or go shopping? There are numerous ways to help your neighbors with disabilities with day-to-day activities. Fill out a volunteer application here.
  • Donate. Your donation will let Helping Hands continue serving New Yorkers with disabilities. You can also sign up for a monthly sponsorship program. For only $5 a month, Helping Hands can provide coffee for monthly social events for adults with a disability; $15 covers the cost of assistance for an adult with a disability to attend a doctor’s appointment; $50 covers the cost of braille paper, slates, styluses and other equipment.

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