Pet Food Pantries Offer Relief to Animal Owners Struggling With Bills
Misael Lopez and his pit bull Cookie visited a new pet food pantry in the Bronx last month. The pantry gave away 2,000 pounds of pet food in one month. Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
Cookie flirted with the man at the front counter with the swagger of a born charmer. She tilted her head, fixed him with a knowing look, and leaned forward on two meaty paws.
“Here Mama, this is the one you like,” the man, Fernando Cruz, cooed as he slipped her a bacon-flavored treat, not for the first time. “You want more? I got you.”
Cookie, a snow-white pit bull with light gray spots, knows the hand that feeds her. She has become a regular visitor at a new pet food pantry in the Bronx that sends free Costco-size bags of kibble home with owners who may not have enough money to feed themselves, let alone their animals.
Animal Care Centers of NYC. a nonprofit that runs the city’s animal shelters, opened this pet food pantry in December, and in the first month alone, the pantry gave out more than 2,000 pounds of food for 71 dogs and 50 cats.
Across the country, the pet food pantry is the latest addition to the food banks. soup kitchens and homeless shelters that serve as a lifeline for people living paycheck to paycheck, if they are employed at all. A small but growing number of dedicated pantries have sprung up, often in response to pleas from people who see their pets as family and spend their last dollar on a can of Purina, even if it means going hungry themselves.
Fernando Cruz wheels a cart of dog and cat food for patrons of the pantry. Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
“Pets and people simply belong together,” said Dr. Emily Weiss, the vice president for research and development at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, adding that pet food pantries help create a safety net for pets and their owners. “Just because somebody can’t afford a specific aspect of care doesn’t mean they don’t belong together.”
The pantries have become part of a broader movement among animal welfare organizations, pet lovers and others that aims to reduce the population of animals in shelters by assisting pet owners before they resort to giving up their companions. The ASPCA has awarded $400,000 in grants since 2010 to 121 organizations nationwide to support pantries, food banks, and other programs that distribute free food for pets.
But some critics have questioned whether such efforts are misdirected. Joel Berg, executive director of Hunger Free America. a nonprofit that was formerly called the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, said he could not support the idea of pet food pantries when so many people were going hungry.
“I understand why this is important, but half the food pantries in New York City don’t have enough food to meet human needs,” Mr. Berg said, noting that he was a cat owner. “We should have fully stocked pantries for humans before we feed pets.”
Supporters of the pantries counter that they are, in fact, helping people by helping their pets, citing research that shows pets can help lower stress and blood pressure, improve moods, and provide emotional comfort to their owners.
Outside a pet food pantry in the Fordham section of the Bronx. The pantry is run by Animal Care Centers of NYC, a nonprofit that operates the city’s animal shelters. Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
“That bond is still the same, no matter what your checkbook looks like,” said Stacey Coleman, executive director of the Animal Farm Foundation. a nonprofit that provided a $12,000 grant to the Bronx pet food pantry.
Cookie, for one, has been glued to the side of Misael Lopez since he rescued her and another dog, Fifa, sitting by a Bronx road in October. Both looked so sad and lost, he recalled, that he had to take them home. “I always wanted pitbulls and these two came about,” Mr. Lopez, 31, said. “Ever since I found them, I say they are my two blessings — two gifts from God.”
Still, Mr. Lopez, a father of two who earns $9.50 an hour stocking shelves at a Family Dollar store, had little money to feed the dogs after paying his rent and other expenses. By coming to the Bronx pantry, he estimated that he had saved about $60 a month on dog food.
Across the New York region, pet food pantries are thriving. Each month, the Hudson Valley Pet Food Pantry in White Plains feeds about 775 dogs and cats belonging to older adults, disabled people and veterans, among others, said Susan Katz, a retired administrative assistant who founded the pantry in 2010 with three friends. The pantry’s $102,000 annual budget is covered by grants and fund-raisers, including pet food drives at local supermarkets and pet stores.
On Staten Island, a pet food pantry was added to an existing pantry in 2014 to help pet owners, many of whom were hard hit by Hurricane Sandy. said Warren Niu, who oversees the operation. Sponsored by VCA. a national provider of pet health care services, VCA Charities. and the Council of Jewish Organizations of Staten Island. the pantry gives away food donated by the company Hill’s Pet Nutrition to as many as 100 people a week. It had to set a monthly limit of one bag per household because it kept running out of food.
Mr. Lopez left the food pantry with a 28-pound bag of dog food. Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
Dogology. a pet store and training center in Canton, Conn. set up a pet food pantry in a back storeroom in 2013 after hearing from local food pantries that people were coming in and asking, “What about our pets?” Since the pantry began, it has given away about 9,600 pounds of dog and cat food, as well as treats, pet beds, dog leashes and toys. Marissa Garson, an owner of the store, said that some patrons, once they recover financially, return with donations for the pantry.
In the Bronx, the new pet food pantry, in the Fordham neighborhood, is part of an existing admissions center run by Animal Care Centers of NYC, and is open to any borough resident who registers a pet, regardless of income, said Ken Foster, who coordinates the organization’s community dog program. Regulars include pet owners out of work, older people on fixed incomes, and one man who had visited nearby restaurants to ask for scraps for his pit bull.
Samantha Goodman, 21, regularly picks up a bag of Iams cat food for her two kittens, Socks and Mittens, saving about $40 a month. Ms. Goodman, who lives with a boyfriend, said last week that money had been tight since she lost her job as a cashier at a Bronx deli, which closed in December. “It helps a lot,” she said. “It takes stress off of us because we don’t have to worry, if the rent is due, where the money would come from to buy the food.”
Guillermo Maccow, 16, found out about the pantry when he brought in a stray dog last week. He said he would keep it in mind the next time he was short on money. “It will give people a chance to keep their dogs,” he said, adding that he already had to switch to a cheaper brand of food for his dog, Chooky, because he had been spending about $60 a month.
The other morning, Mr. Cruz, an admissions counselor at the center, carried a 28-pound bag of Professional Plus Chicken and Pea Formula from the back as Cookie eagerly circled the waiting area. He placed the bag on the counter. Cookie sniffed it.
Then Mr. Lopez hoisted the bag onto his shoulder, and with Cookie by his side, headed out the door for home.