Since the economic crisis, survival on Manhattan's Upper East Side has become even harder for the poor. Soup kitchens with free meals provide some small relief. But political support for these initiatives is fading.
Today's special is meatloaf. Chef Bob Jamieson and his volunteers have prepared two large rectangular baking trays of it. It's served up with mashed potatoes and sweet corn. Forks and knives are rattling in plastic boxes, the smell of cooked meat fills the small kitchen. ''We serve comfort food'', Jamieson says, a small wiry man with a pointy nose, round glasses wearing a red sweat shirt. ''Cheese sandwiches, hearty soups, meatloaf. Food that is satisfying.'' For several of Jamieson's guests this will remain their only meal of the day.
Lunch is served at 12 o'clock sharp, just like every Tuesday in the St. James' parish center on the upper east side of New York City's Manhattan. As opening time approaches stress levels peak for Jamieson and his roughly one dozen helpers. Who's stirring in the instant mashed potatoes? Is the meat done? Where's the sugar for the desert cake?
In less than an hour the first of the hungry will be there. ''Some of them are homeless. Some of them are elderly poor, who receive not very much support from the government and often times their choice is between medicine and food. We also have employed homeless who come to lunch here'', says Jamieson, a pensioner himself, who has run the kitchen since 2009.
Dwindling help in hard times
In recent times the number of working poor has grown dramatically in the US. The country is only slowly making its way out of the economic crisis. Despite labor market improvements median household income is still about 8 percent below its pre-crisis-level. 15 percent of US citizens are officially classified as poor; the number enrolled in the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) close to record highs.
Nevertheless, in February US President Obama signed the Farm Bill 2014 into law. He praised it as an example of bipartisan problem solving as Democrats and Republicans finally found a compromise agricultural subsidies. But the legislation also cuts $8.7 billion in food stamp benefits over the next 10 years. That sum stands for roughly one percent of the program's overall funding. Republicans had pushed for even deeper cuts. Currently 47 million Americans receive food stamps.
Of rags and riches
Paradoxically, Bob Jamieson's soup kitchen clientele live in one of New York City's richest neighborhoods. Apartments here cost an average of five million dollars. The names of global fashion houses are emblazoned above the store fronts; known to millions around the world they are beyond the reach of the St. James' beneficiaries. Right next to the church the Ralph Lauren label operates a large store. Its window showcases summer loafers for 800 Dollars.
35 year old Sidney Kay can't even consider this sort of footwear. His dark green pants are worn through at the knees, his brown corduroy jacket too warm for the season. He lives only a few blocks away from Central Park. ''I live with two other people, we have a two bedroom, which we have split up and I have to pay about 600 bucks per month'', he says. His budget doesn't allow much else.
Kay arrived in the US from India seven years ago. He got a job as an accountant which he lost when the financial crisis hit. Since then he's only had occasional jobs. Now sharing a table with other needy people, he tries to smile. ''It's only until I find better work''.
Sidney Kay is one of about 70 people who came for the St. James' free lunch this week. No questions are asked. The doors are wide open. The big round tables are each set for ten including tablecloth and flowers. Then Bob Jamieson rolls in the first tray of steaming hot meat loaf.
''We try to serve dignity''
After the parish pastor has said a prayer the volunteers serve the food at the tables. No one has to stand in line and wait their turn in front of a big pot like they do elsewhere. ''It's difficult enough to have a sense of self esteem when you always have to ask people to help you. So we're happy if along with that meal we are successful in serving dignity'', says Jamieson.
A few seats remain empty that day but that's very likely to change soon. It's only the beginning of the month; pay and welfare checks have just been cashed. But as the days pass money will become tight for many. Towards the end of the month Jamieson feeds an average of 120 at a sitting - not only on Tuesdays, but also Friday nights when the church serves dinner here. ''That is so good, almost like a banquet'', Sidney Kay says with a grin.
Chef Bob Jamieson is less inclined to smile. The St. James' soup kitchen is financed entirely with donations – one minor benefit of being in a rich neighborhood. ''The gap between rich and poor in New York is vast and there are a lot more poor people than rich people'', says Jamieson. “My greatest wish is that we don't ever have to do this. But unfortunately I cannot see a time when we won't need to.''
Shortly before he steps back out onto Madison Avenue Sidney Kay also becomes reflective. ''Sometimes I ask myself how much longer it can go on like this, when will I have a decent job again? Because living like this forever, that I can't do.''
Kay's hoping for better times. But until his tables have turned, he'll be turning up at the St. James' tables every Tuesday for his free lunch.