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Modern Day Patriots: Dr. Lucy Cabrera

This Independence Day, FOX Fan is honoring modern-day men and women who have devoted their lives to a cause. From feeding New York’s hungry to healing the smiles of children around the world, the contributions of these five people are vast. Their work serves as an inspiration and a reminder on this July 4th to fight for what you believe in.

As President & CEO of Food Bank for New York City, Dr. Lucy Cabrera has spent years providing food to New York's hungry. Since starting with the organization in 1988, Dr. Cabrera has seen it grow by leaps and bounds, last year distributing over 60 million pounds of food to organizations across New York's five boroughs.

FOX Fan: What is the mission of the Food Bank For New York City?

Cabrera: The mission of the Food Bank For New York City is to end hunger by organizing food, information and support for community survival and dignity.

FF: How did you get involved in the organization?

Cabrera: I actually responded to a classified job listing in The Wall Street Journal. I was a single mother of two living in New York City. I had a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a masters in operations management with extensive experience in not-for-profit and I thought, “I had found my perfect match!” That was 21 years ago. I knew as soon as I saw our warehouse that I was home. (Today, that warehouse, in Hunts Point, the Bronx, is 91,000 sq. ft. – the size of two football fields). However, the Food Bank’s search committee wasn’t so sure that I’d feel comfortable in a warehouse. They hadn’t realized that I started my career as a secretary at a canned-food plant in Puerto Rico. That’s where I became interested in the manufacturing world. Years later, I worked for Union Carbide as a production and inventory-control associate. So I certainly wasn’t scared off by their warehouse.

FF: How did feeding New York’s hungry come to be your life’s work?

Cabrera: I think it was part of a natural progression. These were people I knew and whose lives I understood. I lived through many of their struggles. I was born in New York City and raised in a housing development on the Lower East Side along with five sisters. My mother was a garment-factory worker and my father was a cook. I saw poverty firsthand, and it was the fear of being poor that made me push myself because I wanted something more for my children. I am a believer that the way out of poverty is through education. And I also wanted to give something back to the community where people often are not as fortunate as I was.

FF: What is the most challenging part of your work?

Cabrera: The Food Bank’s greatest challenge is the daily struggle to meet the ever-growing demand for food and services. The first year of operations saw 500,000 pounds of food in the hands of 95 programs. Today, the Food Bank has an operating budget of $31 million, 183 staff positions, and last fiscal year we provided 60 million pounds of food — 9 million of which is fresh produce — to approximately 1,000 food assistance organizations citywide. We also provide our network with trainings on nutrition, food safety and operations, in addition to a range of capacity-building topics that encourage each program to serve the needs of its community with dignity.

Our Community Kitchen and Food Pantry of West Harlem is a model program for food assistance programs throughout the city, providing approximately 400,000 meals annually. But we go beyond food assistance. The Community Kitchen also connects participants to such benefits as food stamps and utility and rental assistance. In fact, the Food Bank assists more than 25,000 households annually with food stamp prescreening and application assistance. And in collaboration with local and federal government as well as corporate and foundation partners, the Food Bank prepared more than 50,000 tax returns in 2008, helping low-income New Yorkers receive more than $100 million in tax returns.

With so many New Yorkers feeling the impact of the economic recession — research conducted by the Food Bank found that nearly half of all New Yorkers are presently struggling to put food on the table — it has become even more important for us to build awareness and educate the public about ways to combat food poverty. The Food Bank is a leader in research and evaluation projects that help determine the magnitude of food poverty and how we can create solutions. Recent publications include Child Hunger: The Unhealthy Return on Missed Investments and NYC Hunger Experience 2008.

FF: What inspires you to continue this effort on a day-to-day basis?

Cabrera: The people we serve. They’re moms and dads, and sisters and brother. They’re young and old. They’re the working poor. They’re New Yorkers who are struggling to keep food on the table for their families. The Food Bank already provides food to more than 1.3 million New Yorkers. Today, almost one in five New York City residents lives below the federal poverty line — many of whom will turn to us in the months to come. They don’t give up. Neither can we. That inspires me.

FF: Is there a story of a person that the Food Bank For New York City has helped that has particularly touched you?

Cabrera: I would be hard pressed to single out one person or one family. The need is overwhelming and that certainly influences me. Whenever I’m on the front lines at one of our soup kitchens and food pantries, I’m touched by the people who are standing on line for a meal. This is a very wealthy city. There is something unnatural about seeing people families standing on a food line. But you see it every day. Recently the Food Bank profiled Harry, who has his daily meal at Senior Living in midtown Manhattan. Harry speaks for himself:

“I came to New York around 40 years ago. I live in a single-room occupancy. I have my bed, my sink and my shower — and that’s it. I have no family. The meal from the soup kitchen is my main meal of the day. I feel like (the staff and the other seniors) are my family.”

FF: Do you envision yourself continuing to work for this cause for years to come?

Cabrera: Absolutely. Hunger exists. It shouldn’t. There is still much to be done.

For more information about the Food Bank for New York City, click here.

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