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For hungry New Yorkers, Sandy added to a tough year

NEW YORK (Reuters) - One in six New Yorkers was unable to afford to buy meals on a regular basis this year and the number of people relying on food pantries and soup kitchens has surged in the three weeks since Superstorm Sandy, the New York City Coalition Against Hunger said on Tuesday.

The number of New Yorkers reporting food insecurity was up even before Sandy made landfall late last month, according to an annual report by the nonprofit coalition.

A spot survey of about 100 agencies involved in emergency food relief in New York, conducted as a supplement to the coalition's annual report on hunger, found that nearly two thirds of them saw an increase in patrons after the storm.

Last year, 1.7 million New Yorkers were living below the federal poverty line, with an increase of 100,000 people compared to 2010. The federal poverty line means an annual income of at or below $18,123 for a family of three.

"Over the last few years, things have gone from bad to worse," said Joel Berg, executive director of the coalition.

Millions of people were left without electricity and stranded without mass transit for days and, in some cases, weeks, after Sandy made landfall in the northeast on October 29. In the hardest-hit areas, stores remain closed, and residents have had to rely on volunteers and city services for hot meals.

A third of agencies responsible for feeding the hungry have reported having food ruined either as a direct result of the storm or because of the loss of power, according to a follow-up survey. Nearly three-quarters of agencies were forced to close or limit their hours of operation.

Help from volunteers and aid groups have helped control the storm's impact on the city's neediest, the report said.

"There is unfortunately a pattern, of the American way of responding to this - people respond with their generosity, people are a little less grudging of government help - but we have collectively a pretty short attention span," said Berg, who will present the report's full findings over the next two days.

"My biggest worry is that ... after the cameras go away, after some of the press conferences die down, low-income people will go back to being forgotten again, and funding for these long-term relief efforts will not be sustained," he said.

Overall, food pantries and soup kitchens reported a 5 percent spike in demand in 2012, according to the survey. More than half of providers said they were forced to turn away clients, reduce portion sizes, or limit their hours.

In Staten Island, all of the agencies that respond to hunger reported not having enough food to meet demand, while in the Bronx that was true for 80 percent of agencies. In Queens and Brooklyn, more than 60 percent of agencies did not have enough food to meet the needs of the populations they serve.

The coalition's report is based on federal hunger statistics collected by the U.S. Census Bureau and a survey of over 300 of the city's soup kitchens and food pantries compiled this fall.

(Reporting by Edith Honan. Editing by Dan Burns and Christopher Wilson)

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