Caribbean immigrants in New York City have found a new way to help their poor families back home—shipping food in 50-gallon barrels. While the innovative assistance effort is mostly an individual initiative, the United States government is unwittingly lending a hand.
Some New York City food stamp recipients are using their benefits to send food to family in Jamaica, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. The New York Post broke the “trans-Atlantic takeout” story Sunday.
Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards work like a debit system for both food stamps and cash assistance. Poor Caribbean immigrants have access to foodstuffs that would be expensive luxuries in countries like Haiti, where many people lack basic items. Some welfare recipients in Caribbean areas of New York, used their EBT cards to fill and ship 50-gallon barrels of groceries, the Post found.
A quick call Monday to a Brooklyn Key Food store confirmed the practice. It is not clear what role organizations and churches play in what amounts to an innovative, market-based aid program, apart from the food stamp fraud. The practice is so common that many supermarkets in New York sell the barrels. An employee told me that in his experience, it is mostly individuals, not aid organizations, who use the barrels. Many of the store’s customers spend months filling a blue, plastic conatiner before it’s ready to go. The Post said customers generally pay $40 for a plastic barrel, fill it with up to $2,000 of non-perishable food items, and pay $70 for the three-week ship ride to the Caribbean.
People pay for the food any way they can, and it isn’t always with EBT cards, the Key Food employee told me. Many immigrants, especially those who aren’t legal, don’t receive food stamps. One woman told the Post she didn’t have welfare, yet she bought and saved more than $2,000 of groceries to help her Jamaican family: “I’ve been shopping since last December. You can help somebody else, someone who doesn’t live in this country.” A man was helping her pack her barrel with boxes of macaroni and evaporated milk. “We’re poor here, and they’re poor,” he said. “But what we can get here is like luxury to them.”
While the barrel practice reflects positively on the family fidelity among poor Caribbean immigrants, it’s another black eye on the food stamp program that has doubled in cost since 2008, with 70 percent higher enrollment. Many Democrats continue to maintain that every recipient is hungry, and those who qualify have a near civic duty to take assistance. But this is another example that food stamp benefits don’t always go to hungry Americans.
The Post’s story caused outrage among lawmakers almost immediately.
“This is a blatant abuse of the welfare system, and it must be stopped,” Assemblyman Michael Cusick, a Democrat, said Sunday. Cusick was the New York Assembly sponsor of the Public Assistance Integrity Act, which would have prohibited welfare recipients from using cash assistance to pay for tobacco, alcohol, or lottery tickets. The Assembly failed to act on the Senate-passed proposal before the legislative session ended. To avoid a $120 million federal penalty to its cash assistance program, a food stamp supplement, New York must pass fraud prevention measures by February 2014.
Still, for Caribbean immigrants with hungry families abroad, this issue isn’t as black and white.
“I don’t think they see it as wrong,” a worker at a Brooklyn supermarket told the Post. “To them, it’s just helping family, whether they’re down the hall or in another country.”