Post-Sandy, Fewer Options For Those on Food Stamps

Rosa's Deli and GroceryAnnie Fairman Rosa’s Deli and Grocery

At the Rosa Deli and Grocery Corp, handwritten signs greet customers at nearly every turn: “Food stamps out of service.”

Like many other businesses that have reopened in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the bodega’s phone lines remain down, zapping potential revenue from credit card purchases. In addition, it can’t process payment through the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly referred to as food stamps.

Hector Martinez, a manager at the store on Avenue D, estimates it’s losing thirty percent of its sales each day without phone service. Recipients of SNAP use an Electronic Benefits Transfer card, which functions like a debit card, to purchase items, and the amount is electronically deducted from their account. Retailers are then credited the amount of the purchase within two business days, according to the program’s Website.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture extended the period in which beneficiaries must recertify their household to continue receiving SNAP benefits, and agreed to automatically credit a half-month’s worth of benefits to those living in New York City’s hardest hit zip codes, including Alphabet City. But many neighborhood retailers who accept this form of payment remain without a functioning phone line to process the transaction.

Alphabet Deli and GroceryAnnie Fairman Alphabet Deli, where the EBT line has been down.

Mr. Martinez, who lives on the Lower East Side and has worked at the deli for sixteen years, estimated that about 60 percent of his customers, and perhaps more, use EBT cards. The deli faces the Jacob Riis Houses, the 13-building public housing development that is home to nearly 3,000 people.

At the Alphabet Deli and Grocery, on Avenue C and Sixth Street, employee Fokhrul Islam has been able accept payment by credit card, but his EBT machine, which operates on a different phone line, is still down.

The deli, which reopened Nov. 3, is located in the same building as Lower East Side Rehab V, at 55-unit complex at 89-97 Avenue C whose 120 residents were the last among Manhattan’s public housing developments to have heat and hot water restored. Mr. Islam said a Verizon truck had been parked by the intersection of Avenue C and Sixth Street for much of last week. Last Friday it was seen working alongside a Consolidated Edison truck that was dispatched to repair the gas line on Sixth Street.

The boundaries of the telephone dead-zone are unclear; the manager of the Sergio Deli Superette on Avenue D, between Eighth and Ninth Streets, estimated that landlines were down between East Seventh and 14th streets, while Mr. Hernandez of Rosa Deli thought East Sixth Street might be the boundary.

Compare FoodsAnnie Fairman The entrance of Compare Foods

Sandwiched between the Avenue D bodegas is the tiny, two-aisle Adames Deli. Its credit card and EBT machines have been functioning since the Sunday after the storm, thanks to a neighboring store’s line, according to an employee named Louise. But on the corner of Fourth Street and Avenue C, the Loisaida Avenue Deli Corp. is also unable to process credit cards or EBT payments.

Hashem Said, the manager, said this was frustrating to neighboring residents. “Of course they’re mad about it,” he said, adding that with temperatures dropping, customers didn’t want to walk far to find a store that was accepting food stamps.

Fortunately for residents – and unfortunately for many of the bodegas – the larger supermarkets in the area have restored their service. At Compare Foods, on Sixth Street and Avenue D, yellow signs are posted on the sliding doors announcing that credit card and EBT are working. Mr. Said said he tried to ask supermarket employees how they had restored their service but none were willing to offer any information. When he called Verizon, he was told it would be a month before phone lines were up again, he said.

In a press release issued yesterday, Verizon said it would credit the accounts of customers whose landlines were down due to the storm, and permit customers to suspend their service without a penalty if unable to live in their homes or operate their small business as a result of the storm’s destruction. The release also said the company would “repair or replace” any and all consumer and small business equipment damaged in the storm free of charge.