At a time when New Yorkers need them most, food pantries are getting scarcer.
Unprecedented pressure from the coronavirus pandemic has forced the closure of roughly 35 percent of food pantries in New York City, just as the number of residents facing food insecurity has surged by about 800,000 to two million. For those pantries that remain open, it's a constant struggle to find the volunteers and resources to meet increased demand.
There are a variety of reasons a pantry might close-up shop during a crisis. New Life CDC, a food pantry and meal service, temporarily shut its doors in early March, after the church it typically operates in closed its doors.
"Because of the COVID policies and directives, the church is closed down," said New Life CDC founder and director Jeff Kolsch, who has been running the pantry for close to 20 years.
"They are being super cautious because of the infection rates … but I am allowed to continue feeding the homeless outside in the parking lot."
The community New Life CDC typically serves in Elmhurst, Queens, has been hit especially hard by coronavirus. It's a densely populated, low-income neighborhood that is home to a diverse population of many immigrants. Residents there have tested positive for COVID-19 at a higher rate than in other neighborhoods in the city, according to the Associated Press.
Kolsch said he is working to reopen New Life's pantry but warned that there are numerous other pressures that threaten pantries citywide. Rising food costs, related to supply chain disruptions, can be prohibitive for pantries that supplement food donations by buying their own. But one of the most disruptive problems facing food pantries during the outbreak of coronavirus is a shortage of volunteers.
According to Dan Egan, executive director of Feeding New York State, the state association representing food banks, food pantry volunteers and staff tend to be elderly and therefore especially vulnerable to coronavirus. Many volunteers have chosen, wisely, to stay home. But that means less help for the food pantries that are still open — many of which require more volunteers as they beef up operations to meet demand.
"The typical food pantry volunteer is a 70-year-old woman. They are very high risk and so an awful lot of them have made the correct decision that they need to stay home and quarantine. They have to do that to protect their own health," Egan said. "You can't ask someone in the highest risk group to volunteer. It's not fair to them."
One pantry operating at full-throttle is the one run by nonprofit 9 Million Reasons at Evangel Church in Long Island City, Queens. Prior to the pandemic, the pantry served about 500 families every Saturday. Since the end of March, it has boosted operations about seven-fold, serving some 500 to 700 families every day, six days per week. Pastor Carolyn Marko, who runs the pantry alongside her son Pastor Andrew Marko, said the pantry is looking to kick off Sunday operations as well.
"We want to be able to do this on a daily basis. We were already working on that before this happened. And now, we're like, 'Oh no, that definitely has to happen,'" Pastor Carolyn said.
The pantry has also begun delivering groceries to high-risk communities across the city. Pastor Andrew said the pantry enlists the help of its own volunteers, as well as third-party partners like Uber, to deliver to thousands of individuals and families at privately- and publicly-owned housing in neighborhoods like the Bronx, Coney Island, Harlem, and the Rockaways, just to name a few. In spite of the pantry's robust delivery offerings, it still sees lines wrapping around the block outside of Evangel Christian School. The pantry took over its gymnasium after the city forced schools to close down.
The pantry is lucky to have plenty of volunteers through New York Cares, a nonprofit volunteer network, which sends some 30 to 40 volunteers daily. They help with everything from sorting and packing groceries into color-coded bags to answering phones and driving trucks to drop locations around the city. The National Guard even helps out, posting up at the pantry entrance, distributing groceries, and enforcing social distancing among visitors.
It's with this army of helpers that 9 Million Reasons at Evangel Church and Christian School has managed to deliver some 320,000 meals to hungry New Yorkers in the month of April alone, according to the pastors.
Volunteers are plentiful at Evangel Church, but the pantry struggles to keep enough food in stock to meet the increased demand. While the pantry hasn't yet had to turn anyone away at the door, Andrew Marko said the pantry has had to turn down some delivery opportunities when the food supply runs low.
"They're giving me more food, but I'm at like a seven times increase [in demand], and they've maybe increased my food by four or five times," he said. "We've been buying rice with our own money to make sure we have a starch to go out — hundreds and hundreds of pounds of rice we've gone through with our own money."
New York City food banks like City Harvest and Food Bank for New York City are the Syscos of the free food world, supplying some 60 million to 70 million pounds of food annually to pantries like New Life CDC and 9 Million Reasons.
Images of lines wrapped around city blocks at popular food pantries like Catholic Charities may feed the misconception that there is a scarcity of food in New York. But Feeding New York State's Egan said there is enough food; the challenge is getting the food to those in need. The amount of food the state has made available since the onset of the pandemic has more than doubled and city and state programs have popped up in response to increased need.
To fill the void left by the closure of local pantries, food banks have begun organizing popup distribution sites to bring food directly to the hungry. Nearly 500 public schools have been converted to free meal distribution sites, where they hand out some 400,000 meals daily. Plus, the city set up a home delivery program whereby 12,000 licensed limo and taxi drivers deliver some 100,000 meals daily, mostly to the elderly, according to a spokesperson from the City of New York Department of Sanitation.
To supplement these efforts, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced $25 million in funding through a program called Nourish New York to prop up food banks and emergency distribution centers, as well as to ensure excess food from New York farmers finds its way to those who need it. That's on top of $25 million pledged by the New York City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio to help keep banks and pantries in the city stocked and operational.
"Not many states are lucky enough to have that kind of help," Egan said. "So we are really grateful for that."
That's not to say the current crisis isn't serious. Egan said the U.S. hasn't in its history seen an event so disruptive to food security since the Great Depression. The difference, now, is that there are protections in place to shield those who bear the brunt of the economic crisis.
"We've got simultaneously a public health crisis and an economic crisis stemming from that. The national economy has got levels of unemployment that are already comparable to the 1930s," he said. "When the Great Depression started there were no safety nets in place. The fact that they did not exist yet really made it much worse."
Quick intervention on the part of the government, from the federal level all the way down to the state, may help mitigate the long-term economic impacts from the pandemic. Short-term, however, there is no telling whether the programs in place will be enough to feed the hungry in New York. Egan said he is hopeful.
"All of these programs will help. I think we will get through this because everybody is trying to do the right thing, and that's what will save us," he said.