Pauliina Siniauer is a freelance journalist from Finland who specialises in investigative (food-related) journalism.
She researched food journalism as part of a European Journalism Fellowship programme at the Freie Universität Berlin 2014–15, and produced Europe's first food journalism study programme in Helsinki 2015–16. She has just received her Master's degree from the City University of New York, focusing on health, science and data journalism.
She has worked for Helsingin Sanomat, Finnish Broadcasting Company, Radio Helsinki, Saveur Magazine and NBC News Investigates. Currently she is working as a data journalist for The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
She loves to hang out in the kitchens, because that's where you here the best stories.
That is when the phones start to ring. “We have chickeeeeen!”
People at the food pantry line shout in their phones – calling to their neighbors and friends to urge them to come. The ones that haven’t showed up yet. When a delicacy such as chicken is on hand, everyone will want to come.
At Pastor Maureen Rush’s food pantry, in Canarsie, Brooklyn, there’s always a need for protein – the most wanted, and rare produce in the pantry – but for other food too.
“We never have enough to give,” Rush says sadly, and starts the car engine. Even she doesn’t have as much food as she hopes, her truck is loaded; boxes filled with sweet potatoes; canned food; corn, peas, tuna and beans; butternut squashes; and a pallet loaded with cabbage. We are taking off from the headquarters of City Harvest, a nonprofit, that operates in food rescue and distribution in New York City, to Pastor Rush’s food pantry.
Today, nearly 1.2 million New Yorkers struggle to put meals on their tables. One in seven of the city’s population live in food insecure homes. That means people who use soup kitchens, food pantries, and federal food aid programs – people who can’t always afford food. Most of the food that is handed out for free, is rescued; left-overs, cans with labels upside down, ugly vegetables, items close to due date. On average, City Harvest rescues some 150,000 pounds of food each day, and Pastor Rush is one of their biggest clients. She feeds 45 000 families in a month.
But Rush’s charity wasn’t always this organized. “I was a trash can lady – and I’m very proud of that! Not shamed of getting down and dirty,” she says stoutly. Pastor Rush is on a mission. It all started when hurricane Sandy hit her neighbourhood. She knew she had to do something – and what she did, was soup. Chicken soup. She walked around the streets in her community, handing out the soup to anyone who was hungry. As she realized the demand for the food, she started collecting it from the trashes, cleaning vegetables she found, and distributing them in her neighbourhood. Rush calls it a job God gave her.
Somebody at City Harvest heard about Rush. “We reached out to her, and asked would she like to run a food pantry. We knew there would be a tremendous need for that in her neighbourhood,” recalls Samantha Park, communication manager from the City Harvest. “And I thought, there’s no way I can handle all this on my own! But I said yes. It was my destiny,” Rush laughs. When the first food shipment from City Harvest came, it was only potatoes. “I was afraid of what do people think – what kind of a food pantry is this! The next week I had potatoes and yoghurt. What a mixture, right?”
More and more people came every week, and Rush got more food. Now, she also collects it from BJ’s, she gets bread from Fresh Direct, and local schools gives her left-over milk.
Rush is proud that her pantry distributes lots of fruits and vegetables.
“That’s important because produce like spinach and kale is expensive. But people need it – for example, my customers who have cancer, they need to juice it, when they are having chemo therapy.”
Pastor Rush’s church, the Children of the Light International Ministries, and the pantry, serves in a one-story home at East 99th Street and Avenue L. The neighbors have complained about the crowds that line up for the food for hours, loitering in sideways, senior’s shopping wagons blocking the sidewalks. The food is distributed twice a week. And the crowds are increasing.
Almost half the food pantries in Brooklyn couldn’t meet the demand, according to a new report from Hunger Free America, a non-profit organization that fights hunger in New York City. The survey also highlighted ‘working hungry’. One out of every nine adults in Brooklyn is working but food insecure. Brooklyn has the largest number of food insecure adults out of all the boroughs in New York City.
“It is shameful that America, New York State, and New York City all still have higher levels of hunger than before the great recession,” said Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, in the press conference of the annual hunger report.
The sun is shining brightly on this chilly Friday afternoon. Pastor Rush parks the truck in front of her pantry. Two long lines are snaking along the streets; other line is only for seniors, and their notorious shopping carts. Hundreds of people have been here for hours already. They all know there is not enough food for all, that’s why it’s important to be early. Also, there has been rumors that there might be turkey in the truck – Thanksgiving is next weekend.
A group of volunteers start smoothly piling the boxes from the truck to the yard. A few start to hand out the cabbages. One of the receivers is Micheline Theodore, 41.
She also gets a food box, and is soon on her way to home. Theodore lives a few blocks from here with her husband and four children. As we arrive to her house, we climb to the second floor. They used to live in the first one, but Sandy destroyed it. Theodore starts placing the cans to drawers, eyeing how much food there is for the Thanksgiving. Also, one of her sons is having a birthday this weekend.
Theodore is one of the ‘working poor’. She just got a job as a nurse assistant, but the salary is small. “Rent and electricity you just have to pay – but on top of that, to feed us, and the four teenage boys, that’s hard,” she says. Theodore goes for food to Pastor Rush’s pantry every week. “Of course I feel shame, begging for food,” she says silently, and continues to organize the food cans in the drawers.
Back in the food pantry, Pastor Rush looks a bit worried, but sounds hopeful. She got 80 turkeys from City Harvest. Today there are approximately 600 people in the line. “I just got a phone call from a school – they said they have 20 turkeys for me! I don’t know how that happened – where they came from, but it’s great news! Every one of them matters.”
There is still a week to go to Thanksgiving.See other Finalists