MLK Day event spreads word in East Village of upcoming changes to SNAP benefits

Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, speaking to volunteers at the Monday event. (Photo by Gabe Herman)

Community groups and volunteers gathered in Manhattan’s East Village on Monday to mark Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day with a Community Resource Fair and to inform people about upcoming work requirement changes to the SNAP food assistance program that may affect peoples’ eligibility.

The free event, at 611 East 13th St., was sponsored by Hunger Free America, a nationwide hunger advocacy and food service group. 

Dozens of volunteers arrived in the morning before heading out to canvass in the neighborhood, including at local NYCHA buildings, to spread the word about changes by the Trump Administration to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which are set to go into effect on April 1.

The new United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) rules eliminate exemptions or waivers for able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWD), who have a three-month limit of SNAP benefits if they are unemployed. Until now, states had the ability to make exemptions based on factors in the local economy and labor markets.  

State Attorney General Letitia James co-filed a lawsuit on Jan. 16 along with the Washington, D.C. Attorney General, and joined by 13 other AG’s, to stop the rule. The new rules would prevent about 700,000 Americans from getting SNAP benefits, including over 50,000 people in New York City, according to James.

Over 1.5 million NYC residents rely on SNAP, according to Hunger Free America, and hundreds of thousands more are eligible for the benefits but don’t receive them.

“We’re all together here in the spirit of service in Dr. King’s name,” said Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, to the dozens of volunteers before they left to canvass the East Village.

Berg spoke of poverty being a big problem in America. “We’re the only industrialized nation on the planet that has this level of poverty and hunger,” he said.

He said an instructive quote from Dr. King for the occasion was, “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?”

Over a million people in the city are struggling to afford food, Berg said, and cited the high rate of homelessness in the city, which goes beyond those in the streets to roughly 60,000 people staying in shelters. This is despite billionaires living in the city and the high stock market, he said.

“Dr. King would not have settled for what we are doing today,” Berg said.

Tables at the Resource Fair included Harlem Empowerment Project, offering services like career counseling, English classes and help obtaining a high school diploma.

At another table, Center For Independence of the Disabled, New York (CIDNY) recruited people to become a Long Term Care Ombudsman, which only has about half of its needed positions filled in the city.

Others at the fair included the NYC Commission on Human Rights and ImmSchools, an immigrant-led nonprofit that supports undocumented K-12 students and their families.

After speaking to the group of volunteers, Berg said that the goal was to prepare people for the possible upcoming changes to SNAP. This is the second year of the Resources Fair, and the 18th year of Hunger Free America’s MLK Serve-a-Thon.

“The LES has been gentrified a lot, but there still a lot of people in lower income housing that haven’t been kicked out yet,” said Berg. “There’s still a lot of people living here who are struggling.”

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