To Keep Kids Out of Foster Care, New York City’s Child Welfare Agency Tries a Food Pantry

ACS Bronx Administration for Children's Services
Stephanie Jackson-Hunt, volunteer from New York City’s ReServe program for retired seniors, greets visitors to the food pantry at ACS’ South Bronx location. “They find her very welcoming, very warm,” said her supervisor Purisima Medina, deputy director of administration at ACS. Photo: Emma Davis

In an unmarked building at a busy Bronx intersection, New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) is trying something new. On the fourth floor, the child welfare agency has decorated a sunny room with fake pink flowers and lined the walls with metal shelves of canned and boxed food. The dry goods are part of ACS’ first-ever food pantry, open three days a week to families being investigated for child neglect or abuse.

Before the pantry was launched in June 2017, “[caseworkers] would go to a home and see a shortage, and we would run out to the store and buy things,” said Purisima Medina, deputy director of administration at the ACS South Bronx office where the pantry is located. “Staff was often out late, trying to figure out, ‘How do we get food to a family?’”

The ACS pantry has already served over 1,000 families in the Bronx, where more allegations of neglect were recorded in recent months than in any other borough. “Inadequate food” is part of the agency’s definition of neglect, and the Bronx’s food insecurity rate — the second highest in the city — means that many local households could meet this criterion.

The pantry was created in partnership with the Food Bank for New York City* and provides a mix of dry goods and fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as juice, milk, meat and other refrigerated or frozen items. There’s also a selection of diapers and infant onesies for those struggling to afford childcare supplies. In one corner, kids can draw or choose a book to take home while their parents “shop.”

“We’re not just focusing on the children eating. [The pantry] is for the entire family,” said Almarie Buddington, ACS’ assistant commissioner at the South Bronx office. “It’s supposed to be short-term … But in the interim, for the families that don’t have the income, this is it.”

Only the Division of Child Protection can refer parents to the pantry, but ACS insists that accepting food isn’t a matter of compliance with an ongoing investigation. Medina said the pantry is an effort to improve the community’s trust in ACS, which has been criticized for equating poverty with neglect and targeting low-income families for child removal.

“We know we’re not always seen in the best light, and I think [parents] realize our dedication is shifting. We’re trying to be partners,” Medina explained.

ACS Food pantry bronx Administration for children's SErvices
Purisima Medina, deputy director of administration for ACS South Bronx, said she is particularly proud of the area of the food pantry dedicated to childcare. “A lot of our families have young children and are sometimes short on diapers or clothing,” Medina said. Photo: Emma Davis

Parent advocates remain skeptical of the pantry, saying that ACS tends to use families’ cooperation as later evidence against them.

“I’m very hesitant to refer my clients to anything that comes from ACS, only because I know that it will come back to bite them,” said Dinah Adames-Ortiz, parent advocate supervisor at the Bronx Defenders.

Having learned of the pantry through her own clients, Adames-Ortiz is particularly concerned that ACS could penalize families for accessing it too frequently.

“If [parents] are requesting the food pantry one too many times, then it becomes, ‘Well, what’s going on? Can you budget your money?’” she said. “They are grateful that it exists … but it doesn’t really solve the problem.”

ACS stocks the pantry with goods from New York City’s Human Resources Administration and the Food Bank for New York City (FBNYC), whose network of over 1,000 distribution locations includes a few other pantries closed to the general public. Dr. Camesha Grant, vice president for community connections and reach at FBNYC, oversaw the Bronx pantry’s development, having spent over a decade as an ACS employee herself.

acs administration for Children's services
Children’s drawings hang above the “kids’ corner” of the food pantry, which includes a table and chairs and shelves with donated books for older readers. “For the most part, [clients] come with their children,” said Almarie Buddington, ACS Bronx South Borough Commissioner. Photo: Emma Davis
Dr. Grant said she has already been contacted by several out-of-state organizations interested in replicating ACS’ approach.

“I’ve actually gotten quite a [number] of calls,” Grant said of the food pantry, which could be the nation’s first run by a child protective agency. “I think that it’s something that might be on people’s radar, but at least the ones I’ve talked to … they haven’t yet started anything up.”

In the meantime, ACS is working to expand the pantry program within its offices.

“We have Brooklyn [staff] coming to take a little tour of [the Bronx pantry], and hopefully it will be replicated in every single borough,” said Medina. “That’s our goal, and there are discussions for that already.”

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