When Hurricane Sandy hit New York Tony Butler, executive director of St. John's Bread & Life, said although he was prepared for the worst, he was not expecting what was to come.
“I always downplay the weather,” Butler told the Irish Voice.
The 51-year-old Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn resident cycled his bike to work during the storm, determined to keep the Brooklyn-based charity open for business.
Since Hurricane Sandy St. John's Bread & Life, an emergency food program and social services agency, has witnessed an unprecedented surge in food service output.
“Since Sandy we have doubled the amount of work we are doing. We went from distributing 2,200 meals a day to 4,400 meals,” Butler said.
With the agency’s bright orange mobile soup kitchen packed to the brim, Butler and his crew drove down to Coney Island on Halloween, just two days after the storm. The scene was eerily unfamiliar, Butler recalled.
“It looked like one big beach… a really gross beach,” Butler recalled.
“What first shocked me was when we were on Mermaid Avenue, it was all sand. All the way down the street, it looked like they put buildings on the beach.”
Almost two months on, St. John's Bread & Life is continuing its efforts to help New Yorkers affected by the storm.
“We have people in public housing coming into us who have no heat still,” Butler said.
As well as serving thousands of meals per day from its base at 795 Lexington Avenue in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, the organization also provides an estimated 600 meals through its mobile soup kitchen.
Responding to the needs of Sandy victims is just one of the many services offered by St. John’s Bread & Life, which was originally founded in 1982 as a work of St. John the Baptist parish.
“It started because of budget cuts,” Butler explained.
“Around 1981/’82 when all those cuts happened, New York City had approximately 16 emergency food providers. By 1984, there were 1,600 because an entire safety net with food stamps was gone.”
With the generosity of St. John the Baptist parish, the organization was able to respond beyond the parish boundaries and evolve into an independent institution that works closely with one of New York’s most prominent Catholic universities.
“We had always had a long standing partnership with St. John’s University,” Butler explained.
Thirty years since its inception, St. John’s Bread & Life continues to address issues of poverty in Brooklyn and Queens, serving over 500,000 meals annually.
Since Butler began his tenure in 2005, staff numbers have tripled and the organization moved to its new 22,000-square foot multi-million dollar facility in 2008.
With a background in technology, Butler led the introduction of New York’s first digital food pantry which distributes uncooked meals and toiletries.
The digital food pantry allows guests of Bread & Life to select, on-screen, the items in the pantry they desire. To encourage healthy eating habits, and contrary to most stores and supermarkets, nutritious items cost less.
Butler describes the technology as similar to that used at a self-checkout lane in stores. It also allows employees to track the popularity of food items.
“[The technology] gives us a lot of data in terms of how people use food, and what other services they are looking for,” Butler said.
“We will own the rights to it and are now in the process of trying to sell it to help it pay the bills.”
Like many charitable organizations, the biggest challenge Bread & Life faces is fundraising.
“We have got to raise about $3 million a year,” Butler said the Voice, adding that the organization gets around nine percent annually funding from the government.
Since Butler began his work he has noticed fundraising is more difficult, but he pointed out that Hurricane Sandy has resulted in an upswing.
As well providing food made of ingredients from locally sourced producers, Bread & Life also offers other invaluable social services to their New Yorkers.
“During tax season, we provide free tax help from accounting students,” Butler explained. “We brought in close to $4 million last year in tax returns for folks.”
The organization also provides an immigration clinic, where it helps undocumented immigrants obtain an Employer Identification Number (EIN) to enable them to pay taxes.
“The IRS does not care about your citizenship status, they just want their taxes,” Butler said.
As part of an annual Christmas drive this coming weekend (December 15 and 16), volunteers will pack toys and food for 2,000 families in need. They will distribute the items the following weekend.
“A lot of kids after Sandy lost everything, things we don’t think of,” Butler said.
Despite an increase in demand for their services, Butler says that apart from fundraising, an ongoing challenge is continuing to figure out the balance between charity and justice.
“Americans are great at charity,” Butler said. “But hunger in the United States is not a food problem. It’s a poverty problem.
“You could almost draw a parallel to the Irish Famine, where people were not starving in Ireland because the potatoes failed, but because they shipped all the other food out of there.
“There was food in Ireland, the same way there is tons of food in this country.”
According to Butler, one of the key issues for many people who end up in Bread & Life is access to fair competitive wages.
“An interesting study from Georgetown University, shows that half of jobs in the U.S. pay under $37,000,” said Butler. “You can’t make it in this town on that!”
As well Bread and Life’s food banks and social service programs, Butler says one of the important efforts is providing avenues for people to make that next step. A satisfying aspect of the job is hearing from those who have benefited from their services.
“I was at a restaurant trade show this year in the city. A guy came up to me and I thought it was another sales pitch, but he said ‘I want to thank you.’”
Butler said he was confused at first.
“He told me, ‘I was in your food pantry for four months. I got laid off from work and my unemployment ran out. I had a new daughter and my wife and I were just not making it.’”
“He said to me, ‘I just want to thank you.’”