The number of food-insecure New York City residents has doubled to about two million since the onset of the pandemic. But just as quickly as the need escalated, so, too, did new solutions.
Those who help feed the hungry are up early, clipboards in hand, checking on deliveries. They work the phones, begging for donations. They direct staff and a growing army of volunteers. And they try to keep their wits about them, despite the long hours, the long to-do lists and the long lines that are becoming all too common.
Here are some of their stories.
In Queens, a pastor on a mission
In late March, the Rev. Andrew Marko, pastor of Evangel Church in Long Island City, Queens, converted the 100,000-square-foot building that houses the church and shuttered school into a mammoth operation to feed those in need.
On a recent day, a forklift unloaded pallets of rice from a box truck into the building. Dairy and meat go into a walk-in refrigerator/freezer in the multipurpose room. The gym, cafeteria, classrooms and hallways also store food.
But it doesn’t stay long.
Dozens of volunteers, most of whom are placed here via the nonprofit New York Cares and have no prior connection to the church, pack bags of groceries. Up to 5,500 people a day are served.
“We’ve moved almost three million pounds of food since the crisis started,” Pastor Marko said over the clanging of the school bell, which he hasn’t gotten around to turning off.
He is constantly on the phone, chasing down donations. “I’m the food crier,” he said, marveling at how the whole effort has taken on a life of its own. “I feel like I’m on the back of a speedboat and not sure who’s driving.”
In the Bronx, it’s about the groceries
Growing up, Caesar Tobar-Acosta studied martial arts at the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center in the Bronx. Now, Tobar-Acosta, 23, works as an AmeriCorps volunteer coordinator there.
In mid-March, the center expanded its once-a-week pantry into a daily operation. Regular patrons have been joined on the line by those furloughed or laid off.
“In the beginning, they were uncomfortable,” said Tobar-Acosta, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, of the people who were not used to asking for help. Hot meals, either donated or prepared in the center’s kitchen, are distributed along with bags of groceries.
“The thing everyone wants is the groceries,” Tobar-Acosta said. “They want the rice, they want the pasta so they can make the things they want, when they want it, how they want it. That allows people to get some degree of control back.”
An expanding social agenda in Brooklyn
When LaToya Meaders and Femi Rodney Frazer started Collective Fare, a catering company run out of the Brownsville Community Culinary Center in Brooklyn, they aimed to empower locals interested in healthy cooking, create job opportunities and run a successful business, too.
Things were going well until April, when the company, which specializes in plant-based African diaspora fare, lost over $150,000 of catering jobs. But the financial setback paled in comparison with what was happening to many Brownsville residents, who had suddenly become food insecure.
“An elderly neighbor called our hotline and said she had not eaten in four days,” Ms. Meaders said. “I got my team to drop food off to her that day.”
The duo knew the problem would likely get worse, so they dug into their savings and also partnered with nonprofits like Rethink Food NYC to prepare and distribute free meals. Now some 30 Collective Fare employees are working out of the 1,000-square-foot culinary center to provide around 2,000 free meals weekly.
Repurposing a barge on the Hudson River
Brigitte Griswold, executive director of the environmental nonprofit Groundwork Hudson Valley, spent her childhood on a farm in South Carolina, where her family grew corn and raised chickens. So, it is perhaps not surprising that her thoughts turned to sourcing food when the pandemic shut down the Science Barge, her organization’s floating educational center just north of the city, in Yonkers.
Could Groundwork ramp up its demonstration gardens, normally used to teach children about agriculture, to produce substantial amounts of food?
In late March, Groundwork employees planted seeds for tomatoes, cucumbers and kale in trays on windowsills in their homes. By the end of June, the vegetables had been transferred to the barge. Now, triple the amount of produce is growing there, according to Ms. Griswold.
The harvest, which will be ready in a few weeks, will go to the women’s shelter at the Y.W.C.A. of Yonkers, whose chief executive, it turns out, is another South Carolina native, Charlie Knight. As a child, Ms. Knight watered her own grandmother’s garden. Not that she liked it.
But, she said, “I’ve matured. I’ve come to appreciate fresh fruits and vegetables,” especially for her clients, who are mostly Black and Latino, she said. “One thing we’ve learned from this pandemic is that the communities hit the hardest are people of color.”
In Harlem, converting schools into meal hubs
In 2005, Wall Street equities trader Rhys Powell founded Red Rabbit, a Harlem-based company that provides meals for schoolchildren. He was working with 180 educational institutions, including many charter schools, serving 22,000 meals and snacks a day, when the schools were shut down in March.
Mr. Powell, 40, had to figure out how to continue the organization’s work.
“We were not set up to distribute,” he said. “So we positioned ourselves as an organization that can prepare, and reached out to other organizations who had the expertise we didn’t.”
City Harvest and World Central Kitchen, among other nonprofits, took an interest. Additional kitchens were created. Red Rabbit also started making meals for adults for the first time. Schools acted as food hubs, and meals were distributed to emergency workers, their children and others in the community. Now, 90,000 meals are prepared weekly.
Thousands of deliveries in the Heights
Forty years ago, Yvonne Stennett worked as a youth advisory counselor at the Community League of the Heights, which provides affordable housing and after-school programming, among other services, to Washington Heights residents. Today she is the executive director.
Since the pandemic started, the Community League’s food pantry program has expanded from offering 250 meals, two days a week, to preparing 500 meals, five days per week. Ms. Stennett’s team of 80 volunteers and 20 staff members hand out and deliver canned beans, rice, vegetables and fruit to neighborhoods in the Bronx, as well as in Inwood, Washington Heights and Hamilton Heights, all in Manhattan. Many recipients are disabled and homebound seniors.
“The first month was the hardest because there was a line and we were running out of food,” said Ms. Stennett, 65. Grants and partnerships helped the program continue.
“The fear was giving people a false sense of hope,” she said. “We open at 9 a.m. People were there at 6.”
But she remains optimistic. “When the last person on line has food in their hand from us,” she said, “that’s a good moment.”
In Lower Manhattan, stagehands get busy
In mid-April, Jon Harper, director of operations and facilities for the Abrons Arts Center, was one month into a sojourn in North Carolina with his family when he was called back to New York.
Abrons is part of Henry Street Settlement, a social services organization on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Another neighborhood group, Vision Urbana, had asked Henry Street for help expanding its food-distribution effort.
The next day, Mr. Harper drove back to the city, and by the following week he had set up a satellite operation in Henry Street’s shuttered youth center.
Drawing on his contacts in the arts world, Mr. Harper hired out-of-work lighting designers and theater technicians. A message he posted on an arts-networking site led him to a man on Long Island who lent him 20 shopping carts. Those carts now carry about 500 bags of groceries every week.
Volunteers, including former Abrons performers and audience members whose children have taken classes there, mostly do the deliveries. “We call them our Abrons family,” Mr. Harper said.