St. John's in Bed Stuy offers bread and life, legal advice

Unique charity serves up dignity with rare immigration services

Located on Lexington Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, St. John’s Bread & Life Program has been responding to the needs of poor and disadvantaged for the past 30 years.

Founded in 1982 as a work of the St. John the Baptist Parish, Bread & Life’s mission has been to address the issues of hunger and poverty in Brooklyn and Queens.  Bread & Life has now expanded its reach into the community by opening up a new 26,000-square-foot facility, operating a Mobile Soup Kitchen, providing nutrition counseling, a legal clinic and numerous other social services.

Anthony Butler, executive director of Bread & Life, describes the organization’s approach to assisting the poor as “more dignified” than that of other food pantries.

“We recently began using a tool called the ‘Digital Food Pantry’,” Butler told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The digital food pantry allows guests of Bread & Life to select, on-screen, the items in the pantry that they desire.

The technology mimics that used at the self-checkout lane at major supermarkets. “The warehouse food pantry model, where users are given food items rather indiscriminately, is a less dignified and less efficient approach,” says Butler.

Eating a meal at St. John’s Bread & Life. Photo by Charisma Miller

The digital food pantry allows Bread & Life employees and volunteers to more accurately track which food items are “selling” more and helps ensure that members are getting the items that they actually want.  It also helps its users make healthier food choices.

Intent on fostering and encouraging healthy food habits, Bread & Life sets more nutritious goods on its digital food pantry at a lower price than foods with less nutritious value. Bread & Life prides itself on obtaining a large selection of the foods used in its food kitchen, as well as the fresh foods in its pantry, from local New York farms. Last year alone, Bread & Life brought approximately $250,000 worth of New York state food products into Brooklyn and Queens.

Legal, Immigration Clinics

Providing food to needy Brooklynites is only part of Bread & Life’s mission. The organization also assists its members with minor legal and immigration issues as well as tending to members’ immediate and chronic health needs. Once a week, members of the Urban Justice Inc. team provide assistance with various legal issues, such as benefit advocacy, landlord tenant disputes, and domestic violence issues. Clients are also helped to locate appropriate channels for assistance for other legal issues.  

As tax time nears, Bread & Life also provides tax assistance for members who are working but underemployed.

Many Bread & Life members are immigrants who are afraid or unsure of how to address their immigration status. The St. John’s School of Law supports an immigration law clinic there where members can speak with law students and their attorney supervisor about various immigration issues.

The “Digital Food Pantry” allows clients to select the items they desire.  Photo by Charisma Miller

Given the new pro-bono requirement for all law school students applying to practice in New York state, Bread & Life hopes to see an increase in law student volunteers to staff their legal services division.

Medical Team

Bread & Life uses the talents of a medical team from Care for the Homeless Inc. to assess and care for the medical needs of its members. “We are hoping to link the technology from the digital food pantry to a larger case management system,” says Butler. “The ultimate goal is for a member’s medical condition to be linked to his digital food pantry account.

“For example, if a particular member has high cholesterol, when he selects items on the digital food pantry, foods that help lower cholesterol will be highlighted on the list of available items.”  

Money supplied from a $500,000 expansion grant recently given to Bread & Life will assist in this technological expansion. “This money provided by the City Council will help us immensely,” noted Butler.

In addition to expanding its innovative technology system, Bread & Life will use the money to install more private counseling rooms for their legal clinics and expand their test kitchen. “We often hold cooking classes for our members to help them learn how to make vegetables more appetizing for their children, for example,” he said.

Small businesses will also have access to the larger test kitchen. For a nominal fee and a requirement that some employees be hired from the Bedford-Stuyvesant area, Bread & Life will allow small businesses, such as the ubiquitous Brooklyn food trucks, to utilize their test kitchen to prepare food. Some small businesses, such as Heritage Meats, already take advantage of the current, small test kitchen.

Local Brooklyn restaurants are further helping Bread & Life by participating in the “30 is Enough” program. The program is a dine-out event that will occur on Nov. 7 and 8. Participating restaurants will donate 10 percent of the profits to Bread & Life.

Programs like 30 is Enough help Bread & Life address the problem of hunger locally and purchase food for those who would otherwise go hungry. Though Bread & Life provides a needed service to many low-income and disadvantaged Brooklynites, such organizations still don’t provide a permanent solution to the overarching problem of hunger in America.

“There is enough food in this country,” says Butler. “There is just not enough access to it.”