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Recession strains food relief

As the number of hungry people in the borough increases, food experts and state Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D−Fresh Meadows) gathered at the Stop & Shop in Glendale Friday to discuss ways consumers can stretch their food budget.

“I encounter people almost every day having difficulties paying for rent and putting food on the table,” Lancman said.

Some are turning to the Queens Jewish Community Council’s food pantry on Union Turnpike, which has been nearly overwhelmed with demand, according to Warren Hecht, the group’s president.

The QJCC pantry recently packed 1,000 bags of groceries intended to supply the pantry’s clients for 30 days. All were distributed in less than one week, he said.

The pantry is also seeing an uptick in the underemployed, Hecht said, including retirees whose incomes have dropped 30 percent to 40 percent because of their investments; self−employed people whose work has been reduced; and even professionals working in lower−skill jobs.

The QJCC’s meals on wheels program has also grown dramatically, from 320 meals a week in 2007 to 960 a week in 2008.

Erika Pijai, Queens coordinator for nutritional and health programs for the Cornell University Cooperative Extension, urged shoppers to look past the sticker price and weigh the long−term health costs of food decisions.

“Even in these tough economic times, it’s still important to eat healthy, nutritious, balanced meals,” she said, warning against shopping when hungry or tired and recommending checking the unit price of food items to find the best deal and taking advantage of the supermarket circular. “With a little bit of planning, it’s easy to shop smart and healthy.”

Lisa Altshuler, director of the Kids Weight Down Program at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, suggested cutting out sugary drinks to help steer children to healthy heating habits.

“We’re seeing an incredible increase in Type 2 diabetes in children,” she said, noting four of 10 children in the city are obese.

Altshuler also said including children in the budget planning process can help them understand the limits of what the family can eat.

“It’s a difficult conversation to have, talking about money, but it’s a great opportunity,” she said, noting that encouraging children to think about the food budget as a puzzle can help them feel like part of the process.

Stop & Shop Consumer Advisor Andrea Astrachan said eggs and beans are an inexpensive alternate sources of protein, and noted that the quality of store brands has improved since the 1970s.

The forum took a slightly political turn when Rego Park resident Richard Ott, 74, warned the commentators about the impact tolls on the East River crossings would have on food prices in the outer boroughs, noting 90 percent of the city’s food supply comes in trucks from outside the metropolitan area.

“They have to pay tolls, therefore you walk into the supermarket, their prices are going up,” he said.

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e−mail at jwalsh@timesledger.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 154.

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