A Halal food distribution to help hungry Muslim Bronxites break their fasts for the day highlighted the prevalence of food insecurity in the borough.

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, New York City Comptroller Brad Lander, Councilmember Amanda Farías and Sapna NYC handed out food to about 200 individuals at 2348 Waterbury Ave. on Friday. Bronxites lined the Unionport block waiting for bags of food, echoing the sentiment that the Bronx is the hungriest borough.

“The turnout that we’ve seen today has been consistent with a very steady trend that has been happening across the district, not just here in this neighborhood in the Bronx, but we’re seeing it in Parkchester, in Throggs Neck, all the way up through Pelham and City Island,” Ocasio-Cortez said in an exclusive interview with the Bronx Times at the distribution. “And food insecurity has existed before the pandemic. It accelerated during the pandemic and now it’s really at a peak due to just the enormous increase in cost of living.”

A line of people waiting for food stretched down the block at the food distribution for those observing Ramadan. Photo Aliya Schneider

The event is part of a series of Halal Iftar food distributions throughout Ramadan organized by Lander, Islamic Relief USA, community-based organizations, hunger relief organizations and elected officials. Throughout the month, nearly 14,000 grab-and-go meals are being handed out. Iftar is when Muslims observing Ramadan eat after the sun sets, following the day-long fast. Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, takes place from April 1-May 1 this year.

Food insecurity, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. One in four Bronx residents faces food insecurity, which is 1.7 times greater than the state average, according to a United Hospital Fund and Boston Consulting Group December 2021 report. Children in the Bronx face a higher rate of food insecurity at 1 in 3, according to the report. Statewide, the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem.

The struggle to eat is intertwined with a rise in housing costs and undocumented people not being eligible for programs that subsidize food, Ocasio-Cortez told the Bronx Times. As rents increase, that’s less money left to pay for groceries.

Ocasio-Cortez and Lander help distribute food to Bronxites in Unionport. Photo Aliya Schneider

Many families who attend food distributions like Friday’s would be eligible for programs like WIC and EBT if they were citizens, Ocasio-Cortez said. Along with providing food through events, eligibility should be expanded for these programs, which undocumented immigrants contribute taxes to, she added.

Undocumented immigrants in New York state are not eligible for food stamps, but WIC, a supplemental food program for women with a medical or nutritional risk who are pregnant or have a child up to the age of 5, does not account for immigration status when determining eligibility.

As for housing, the Bronx native said the city should go after private equity groups that buy vacant residences without filling them, which creates an artificial scarcity. A vacancy tax, like in Vancouver, would bring more turnover in housing inventory, Ocasio-Cortez said.

Farías said she directs City Council funds to Sapna NYC, the Bronx-based organization that hosted the event.

From left, Lander, Ocasio-Cortez and Farías speak with a Sapna NYC organizer. Photo Aliya Schneider

The nonprofit is dedicated to empowering South Asian immigrant women, by promoting both their health and social justice. The organization was founded in 2008 as a response to an increase in South Asian immigrant women impacted by poverty, unemployment, cultural and linguistic isolation and depression in the Bronx. The organization was formerly called the Westchester Square Partnership.

Farías told the Bronx Times that the path forward in addressing food insecurity requires supporting local community-based organizations that can connect with people and make them feel comfortable asking for help.

“I think a lot of this is, sometimes people are not comfortable asking for help and to have people that look like your kids, speak your language, that you can show up in a safe space and pick up a bag of food that is halal is really important,” she said.