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New York City Snowstorm Reduces Ranks at Food Pantry

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A city employee clears snow from the sidewalk at the United States Court following a major winter storm on February 9, 2013 in New York City. New York City and much of the Northeast received a foot or more of snow overnight. Heavy snow warnings are in effect from New Jersey through southern Maine. (Photo by Andrew Kelly/Getty Images) | Getty Images

Once a month when St. Francis Xavier church near Manhattan's Union Square opens its food pantry in the basement, Mercedes Cruz takes a number and lines up outside with her cart.

Last summer, Cruz arrived at the church at 6 a.m. -- four hours before the pantry opens -- and there already were 18 people ahead of her. This Saturday though, after the area was hit by a blizzard that brought 12 inches of snow to some parts of the city, Cruz headed over to the church at 9:45 a.m. and still managed to be only the 35th person there.

Ahead of the snowfall that inundated the East Coast Friday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the city’s Department of Homeless Services to double efforts to connect the city’s unsheltered with a warm place to sleep. But for those needing help with other basics, like food, the snow seems to have complicated the quest for help.

Cruz, who left the church with a friend toting a cart full of food Saturday, suspected that the people who normally come from uptown must not have made it because of the snow.

"Today, it was only the people who live around the church," Cruz said. "It's great for us."

About 15 percent of Americans experienced food insecurity -- inconsistent or unreliable access to food -- last year, according to a September Department of Agriculture report. Around the state, about 13 percent of New Yorkers have insecure access to food.

Though Friday's storm prevented some of Xavier’s regulars from making it to the pantry, in other ways the weekend was not atypical, especially not in comparison to the challenges Superstorm Sandy presented.

On the second Saturday of every month, the pantry services around 125 people, but volunteer Alex Hoffman estimated that it had seen only 40 to 50 the day after the storm. Saturday morning, the seats in the church's basement where people wait their turn to shop for food weren't close to filled and some of the food stations had no lines at all.

"This is the lowest I've ever seen it before," said Hoffman, an AmeriCorps volunteer who has worked at the church since September.

Cassandra Agredo, executive director of Xavier Mission, explained that the church didn't have to prepare differently for this weekend's blizzard.

"A lot of our volunteers live in the neighborhood and they'll trek on over and make sure we've got what we need. We generally don’t have to take huge precautions," Agredo said.

In addition to the food pantry, the church is part of a network of 50 faith-based shelters around the city that accommodate people overnight. The Xavier shelter typically sees only 10 to 12 men on average during the winter, but all 18 beds were filled on Friday.

The men arrive by bus in the evening from a drop-in location at 40th Street and Ninth Avenue, and get picked up again the next morning. The only difference the snow made was that the bus was not able to pick the men up Saturday morning because of the weather. The drop-in center instead gave them Metro cards so that they wouldn't be stranded.

During Sandy, on the other hand, one of Agredo's volunteers walked all the way from Riverdale in the Bronx to open the shelter because subways weren't running. The church had no power for a week, but still kept the shelter and the weekly soup kitchen open.

Having lost all its perishable goods, the church had to ask neighbors to bring over peanut butter and jelly, and bread. "We were making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for hours and hours and hours," said Agredo.

HuffPost reporter Janell Ross contributed to this story.

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