These 14 Powerful Photos Show What It's Like to Be Hungry in NYC

Source: Joey O'Loughlin

When photojournalist Joey O'Loughlin was asked to take photos for the Food Bank for New York City, she didn't even know food pantries existed in the city. She didn't know people of all ages, cultures and occupations waited for hours in lines that curved around blocks for a meager bag of groceries on sizzling sidewalks in the summer or frozen snowbanks on winter nights. 

She also didn't anticipate she'd be spending the next three years documenting the lives of hungry New Yorkers — waiting on those long lines and entering the homes of the people who can't afford New York's infamously high rent prices as well as enough to eat. 

One in every 5 New Yorkers relies on a food pantry or soup kitchen in attempt to adequately feed themselves or their families, Triada Stampas, the Food Bank's vice president for research and public affairs, said in an interview. But you wouldn't necessarily know that by glancing at fellow commuters on the subway, the person behind you in the pharmacy line or the 5-year-old in your daughter's class. Beyond the fact that the faces of the hungry don't always match up with the ones stereotypes perpetuate, the condition of hunger is invisible. 

"There is no mark of hunger on a person," Stampas said. "There's no physical proof."

In fact, only 11% of those who rely on the Food Bank are homeless. The rest, well, they're your neighbors. "They have homes, and they have nice homes, and they have nice people in them," O'Loughlin said. "And they're right next you."

While the closeness of hunger may not be seen by those who aren't looking, O'Loughlin has given her fellow neighbors some more visibility through her exhibition Hidden in Plain Sight: Portraits of Hunger in NYC, which is being co-presented by the Food Bank for New York City and Brooklyn Historical Society through November.

"There's such stigma and shame connected with not being able to put food on the table," O'Loughlin said by phone. "But when you're at the pantry you realize that we're not all so far apart."

The 14 photos below, which are part of the exhibit, offer a rare glimpse into what it looks like to be hungry in New York. "If it can make people feel better about themselves — more comfortable about their circumstances — and if it makes other people a little more empathic, that would just be great," O'Loughlin said.

(Editor's note: All photos and captions are by O'Loughlin.)

On Saturday mornings, 4-year-old Brandon and his family make a 4-mile round trip to collect food at two Queens food pantries. Running, laughing and teasing his brother and cousins, he trails along in high spirits, sometimes catching a ride in the shopping cart.

Every day in New York City, thousands of people stand in line for hours, waiting for a bag of groceries at local food pantries. Originally conceived as an emergency ration, with staples for three meals for three days, the pantry bag is the new normal for families whose incomes can no longer keep pace with the cost of living.

The line at Father's Heart Pantry wraps around the block on Saturday mornings. In this trendy and expensive corner of the Lower East Side/East Village, neighbors sometimes walk on by, unaware.

Grandmothers are familiar faces on the pantry lines. Nora Balfour is 74, and a great-grandmother, but she still calls her husband "Lover" when he calls her after church. He's in Jamaica, while she's in the Bronx with her son, his wife and children, helping them keep the family together. Nora's son is a security guard and his wife is a home health aide, both low-wage jobs with hours that vary wildly.

Each month, more than 1,000 people collect groceries at this pantry in Jamaica, and the number keeps rising. The food distribution is a community service provided by Honor House, temporary housing for veterans in transition. Homes in this middle-­class neighborhood sell in the $400,000 range.

It was a long day for Gregory and Shamar Starzman, then 12 and 14 years old. Along with their Uncle Otto, the boys helped set up and break down two food pantries in two different boroughs since their alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. Each week, tons of food are distributed to New Yorkers in need. Much of the heavy lifting is done by volunteers, many of whom depend on the pantries to feed their own families.

Patrick Dolby is 46 years old and living with AIDS. He was outed in the military, less than honorably discharged and never completely regained his footing. He worked for Housing Works for years, and now lives alone in subsidized housing on Staten Island, a mile from where Eric Garner was killed. Dolby depends on food pantries to get by, and can offer a remarkable accounting for his living expenses, balanced down to the penny.

Volunteers at the Hanson Place Pantry in downtown Brooklyn, just a few blocks from the Barclays Center. Every Thursday afternoon, hundreds line up for food in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.

The 2008 financial crisis rocked Paul McKay's world. His thriving luxury renovation business in New Jersey was leveled and his marriage crumbled. So the Irish immigrant, born on a farm, dusted himself off and started over in Richmond Hill. Neither Paul, nor his new wife Judy, a nanny, are working in full-time positions. They struggle to support their fledgling family and have relied on local pantries when work is scarce.

Dina Garcia is a 42-year-old mother of two little girls and a 26-year-old son with three children of his own. She's resourceful, and navigates a challenging life with upbeat resignation. She lives in the Bronx and works in a grocery store bakery on the Upper West Side. Meanwhile, the girls go to a charter school near her mother's apartment on the Lower East Side. Dina, a lifelong minimum wage earner, uses pantries for groceries and sometimes goes to a soup kitchen that offers family dinners.

Mae Tate is a hard-working seamstress in her 60s who was downsized several years ago. Now she works out of her Bed-Stuy apartment, day and night, seven days a week, but doesn't earn enough to make ends meet comfortably. The cost of living here is now so high that Mae can't afford to shop in the local supermarkets. The pantry bag helps when money is tight.

In Midwood, families line up on Fridays for bread for Sabbath dinner. Keeping kosher is hard for families who live in poverty. The food tends to be more expensive and the number of kosher pantries is limited. The majority of poor Jewish families in New York City live in Brooklyn.

Emily Diac, 5 years old, waits while her mother shops at a pantry in Richmond Hill. Her family has relocated to Marietta, Georgia, where her mother, Mina Reyes, works at Sam's Club and her father is a maintenance man. Life here was unaffordable. One in 4 New York City children doesn't have enough to eat. Reyes didn't want Emily or her brothers to be part of that statistic, so they moved on.

Hunger is a constant, and disproportionately affects the most vulnerable among us. Pantry lines form before the sun rises; people are anxious to get the best offerings, fresh food priced out of reach in supermarkets. Sometimes the wait is three hours — a tedious, but a dependable option for feeding a family.

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Kate Bratskeir

Kate Bratskeir is a Food Editor at Mic. She can be reached at kate@mic.com.

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