Friday morning, Michael Mighty took a bus to 58th Street for a free plate of Curry Gold and peas and rice at one of his favorite Jamaican restaurants.
“I told them to make it as hot as possible,” he said. “I’m tired of eating sandwiches.”
It might be his only meal for the day.
Mighty, 58, still doesn’t have power in his Overtown apartment, and for most of this week, neither did the grocery stores he relied on. Without power, he couldn’t use his food stamps, which come on a debit card-style system these days. Cash is hard to come by, so Mighty said he had to hunt for free meals until the power came back on.
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Nonprofits, churches and government officials are hosting pop-up cookouts and meal giveaways across the county — some quite elaborate — to help residents without the power to run a stove or a fridge, but there are still gaps.
People who use food stamps, the government program known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program or SNAP, were told to stock up before the storm, Mighty said. The government even OK’d a temporary change to the program for the month of September allowing SNAP users to purchase hot and ready-to-eat foods with their cards, called Electronic Benefits Assistance cards, or EBT.
But after almost a full week without power, all of that food bought before the storm is rotten. And the first grocery stores to open up were long bus rides away.
However, electricity is slowly returning to food sellers in the impoverished community, and by Thursday, business was brisk at the only supermarket in the area. Shoppers restocked on fresh meat, vegetables and frozen foods at the Top Value, which was back at full power after days of running on generators.
The other sources of food, the corner grocery stores that dot the historically black neighborhood, weren’t as lucky.
Although almost all of them reported full power restoration, some stores were still missing an internet connection to run their SNAP systems. They had to turn people away.
“I had to put a sign on the door so people wouldn’t bring all their stuff up to the counter and then have to put it all back,” said Rudy Lorenzo, the owner of The Meat Store grocery shop for the last 15 years. “They think that because we have power we can help them, but we can’t.”
That sign has cut into his business, Lorenzo said. He estimates 55 percent of his customers use their SNAP cards to buy food.
“You see, it’s empty,” he said, waving to the barren aisles of his store. “The people who have the card, they can’t use it. So they’re running around.”
Down the street at another corner store, owner Mohammad Abushamab said his food stamp system was down too. His business, M&B Market on Northwest 16th Street, is hurting, but he tries to make sure his regular customers aren’t.
“The people who come here, I know them,” he said. “I just give them the stuff and tell them to pay when the system is back.”
Outside the store, as a woman wheeled a shopping cart full of bottled water and boxes of military meals ready to eat, or MREs, Mighty swigged a bottle of water he picked up at a giveaway and remembered how hurricane power outages are handled in his native Jamaica. Big outdoor fires were common when the electricity went out, he said, and no one went hungry.
“When you live in America you can’t be making no wood fire,” he said. “Here, everything relies on the FPL guys.”