Although a man could be barred from the afterlife for letting another man go hungry in ancient Egypt, New York City didn’t cook up the idea of soup kitchens as a way to feed the poor until the Great Depression. Now more than 1,100 soup kitchens and food pantries are sprinkled across New York City.
And with the number of homeless New Yorkers higher today than since those bleak economic times of the early 1930s – more than 60,000 people were checked into New York City homeless shelters at the beginning of December – the lines outside soup kitchens and food pantries sometimes stretch down blocks. Food stamp distribution has also declined since 2013 due to federal welfare cutbacks, forcing more New Yorkers to turn to emergency food sites. Overall, 1.4 million New Yorkers don’t have secure access to sufficient food, according to the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.
Meanwhile, the number of emergency food sites in New York City hasn’t kept up. By 1997 1,000 food pantries operated in the city, says Janet Poppendieck, the policy director at New York City Food Policy Center.
“Although there are new pantries, there are also pantries that go out of business,” Poppendieck says. “Many pantries are purely volunteer operations and there’s a kind of inherent fragility in relying on volunteers.”
Between 2013 and 2016 nearly 80 percent of the city’s soup kitchens and food pantries reported an increase in demand; 30 percent said they sometimes sent people off empty-handed.
Felicia Odu-Okon, who with her husband operates a food pantry at The Word of Life Church in the Longwood section of the Bronx, spends her Saturday mornings loading people’s shopping carts with bags of potatoes and frozen meat.
The people who wait peer down the line, afraid that the food will run out. Odu-Okon shares their fear, and sometimes there isn’t enough for everyone.
“They just walk up and down the block,” Odu-Okon says. “As if they were waiting for a miracle.”
It’s not just homeless people in line for a free meal, said Filomena Acevedo, director of community organizing at Hunger Free America. Many of the people she’s spoken to who rely on food pantries say they never imagined this moment.
“It could be me, you or anyone in line,” Acevedo said. “You’re not going to let yourself die.”
Nearly half of New Yorkers who aren’t food secure hold a job, according to the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. Some pantries serve working people only.
A class of at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism sent its reporters all over the Bronx – where one in three children are in real danger of hunger – to explore a day in the life of the city’s food pantries and soup kitchens.
They brought back these stories. -Annie Nova
‘People Will be Fighting for a Spot’
While the sky was still black on a Saturday morning in December, Rev. John Odo-Okon arrived at his church in the Longwood neighborhood of the Bronx ready to fight the monster.
“We have to make a dent on this monster that won’t leave our community alone,” he said, using his hands to rip open boxes of frozen chicken breasts and tomatoes.
“The monster, to Odo-Okon, is the hunger felt by the hundreds of people a week who come to his food pantry.
Although the volunteers, who range in age from 10 to 90, don’t start giving out the food until noon, people lined up outside The Word of Life Church as early as 5 a.m.
“You have to get here early because everyone will be fighting for a spot,” said Eric Burrison, 46, whose been standing in line with his cart before sunrise,said. “They’re hungry.”
Burrison said he came to the pantry because his refrigerator is empty and he’s used up his $194 monthly allotment of government-provided food stamps.
“I try to stretch it out,” he said. “That thing goes quickly.”
He said he buys only a few items at once at the supermarket and stops short of finishing each meal so that he’ll have leftovers.
Garreth Malade, 44, worried about food less in the three years he was in prison, he said. After being caught selling cocaine he lost his public-housing apartment. Now he’s staying at Prospect Hotel shelter in the Bronx. It was there he found out about this food pantry.
He’s been waiting for over six hours, but said he’s used to living in suspense. He applied for food stamps but hasn’t heard back yet. He applied to be a dishwasher at a café in Manhattan and is waiting to hear back on that, too.
“Best things come to those who wait,” he said, laughing. Then he turns serious. “This right here is a blessing.”
Odo-Okon said that sometimes people have to swallow their pride to stand in line for free food. One man lingers on the side of the lines and Odo-Okon calls him out.
“Can I help you sir?” he yells.
The man looks away. “No thank you,” he said, walking off.
“Come here,” Rev. Odo-Okon demands, handing him bread and eggs.
“Crime is down because of this pantry,” Lorraine Hume, 52, a volunteer, said. Some hungry young people in the neighborhood think that the only way to get food is to steal it, she said. “Sometimes their back is against the wall.”
Hume said she relies on the pantry to feed herself, supplementing her monthly $140 welfare check.
“Imagine living off of that,” she said. Hume describes a rough life with a series of abusive relationships, homelessness and health issues. But now she’s working to get her high school diploma and hopes to be a medical assistant.
She had warm words for Odo-Okon and his wife, who often helps.”They’re the life preserver of this community,” she said.
Joseph Reggler, 59, came to the panty so he could surprise his brother with a real meal on his last night before he goes back to Florida.
“We’re going to have hamburgers from what I see,” Reggler said, pointing to the packages of chopped meat in his shopping cart. “We’re trying to make his last night special.”
He said he comes to the food pantry every week. Sometimes he shares some of the food with his neighbors, he said.
“We call it therapy. When we’re all here we talk to people and find out other places we can go,” he said. “Last time we came we got French fries and everything.” -Annie Nova
Times Change. The Pantry Stays.
Many New York City residents in need can count on the Momentum Project for a fresh lunch and food to take home five days a week.
The non-profit organization, called Momentum for short by its staff, partnered with Boom! Health after a string of budget cuts threatened its funding. Together the two groups routinely transform various church dining halls throughout the city into sanctuaries of care, service and nutrition.
With Yankee Stadium as its background, one of those churches, the Church of God of Prophecy on East 156th Street in the Bronx, opened its doors from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., as usual for a recent Wednesday.
On the menu this week was baked chicken, candied yams and collard greens.
“I try to make things the people like,” said Robert Quinones, the on-site chef. “Some soup kitchens get the number 10 cans and just heat it up.”
Momentum provides an opportunity for the community, compared to other soup kitchens and food pantries.
An on-site social worker connected visitors with resources for housing, health care and employment.
A full-time staff of nine and a handful of volunteers packed plastic bags filled with canned goods, fresh fruits, vegetables and bread.
The hot meal, cooked from scratch, included meat prepared at an incubator kitchen a few blocks away. The side dishes were cooked on-site.
By 10 a.m. the line wrapped around the block, with families, youth and seniors. “Sometimes they’re even here when I show up,” said Miguel Rosado, one of the site coordinators.
Rosado was introduced to Momentum in 2002 by a friend and staff member. He also wanted to give back to people living with HIV and AIDS, some of whom were his friends and relatives.
After lunch ended at 1 p.m. the staff reset for a dinner service at 4:30 p.m. The lunch is open to all members of the community. However, the dinner is specifically for HIV-positive New Yorkers.
“I was inspired to join Momentum,” said Rosado. “Some of the clients are going through a lot. When I give them a hug or just a smile, it really makes their day.”-Tiye Sheppard
Pantry Plugs Gap Between SNAP and Need
The young man was walking fast, looking for somebody as he approached the Muslim Women’s Institute in Highbridge.
“Jess!” he yelled when he spotted a blonde walking toward him. “Did you get cigarettes? I told you we should be here, in line.”
The couple, Brandon, 28, and his girlfriend Jess, 27, who refused to give their full names, got in line for the institute’s food pantry. They said they were unemployed, live with a roommate few blocks away, and were hoping to get enough food for the three of them.
“She can’t get food here because she doesn’t have a city ID,” said Brandon, looking at Jess. “We have food stamps, but they only last for so long.”
More than 100 community residents come to the pantry run by the Muslim Women’s Institute for Research and Development every Tuesday and Thursday. Each time, nearly 20 leave with nothing because the pantry has run out of supplies, said Sultana Ocasio, the executive director of the center. She said that New York City should provide more resources to pantries but also needs to increase the amount of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP.
Nearly 1,8 million low-income New Yorkers receive SNAP benefits monthly to purchase food, according to the city official website.
“If you live on Food Benefits, you run out of food in two weeks,” said Ocasio. “People rely on food pantries. But emergency food programs can’t meet the demands of food insecurity.”
Nearly 48 percent of Highbridge’s population receive SNAP benefits, making the neighborhood No. 1 in SNAP program enrollees across New York City, according to New York City’s performance report.
The Muslim Women’s Institute’s pantry has noticed an increase in numbers of visitors in the last year, Ocasio said. She attributed it to the three-month limit in Food Stamps that the government put on the able-bodied adults without dependents in 2016.
“It’s been from 80 to 100 people a day; now it’s over a 100 a day,” said Ocasio. “The more you cut benefits, the more people come to pantries.”
New York is one of 22 states that earlier this year reimposed a three-month limit on SNAP benefits in any three-year period for adults without disabilities or dependents. That limit was created by the 1996 federal welfare-reform law, but cities and states were permitted to apply for a waiver during periods of high unemployment, and a broad waiver was granted after the 2008 financial crisis. Most of New York City remains covered by the waiver, but parts of Manhattan—along with much of the rest of the state—are not. Under this limit, 500,000 to 1 million people will be cut off SNAP nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture USDA, which administers the program.
To receive a maximum of $194 monthly in SNAP benefits, an applicant must meet all requirements and do some paperwork. To receive a three-day family supply of vegetables, meat, rice and juice, the Muslim Women’s Institute requires any city- issued photo ID.
Started as the only food pantry providing halal food in late ’90s, when large numbers of Muslim immigrants came to the Bronx from West Africa, today the institute serves anyone in the diverse community.
“They don’t give any pork here and give out halal turkeys sometimes,” said Sinai Bustamante, 73, of Kingsbridge, one of 15 people waiting in line outside the pantry on Thursday. She studies food pantries’ schedules so she can drive to several different ones in a single day. Today she drove 15 minutes to the institute.
“I go to many places,” she said. “Sometimes people there are nasty. But here people are very nice.”
Upper Bronx, including Kingsbridge, does not have enough food panties, and most of them give out mostly canned food, said Bustamante.
As she walked out of the Muslim Women’s Institute pantry with a cart containing rice and cereal, along with raw carrots and potatoes, she said she was heading to another pantry.
“This pantry closes at 3, but another one closes at 4, so I have time for both,” she said. “I am going to the Bronx Seven-Day Adventist Church, and they give a lot of food there.”-Milana Vinn
Food, Showers and Advice on the Menu
As guests enter Part of the Solution in the Fordham neighborhood of the Bronx they are immediately directed into a dining-style area, complete with gingham tablecloths, brightly-colored artificial flowers and meals containing the four basic food groups.
In the basement are showers, a full-service dentist and medical clinic and racks of free clothing. In the back are shelves of food in the grocery-store style food pantry and a space for neighbors to receive mail. Bilingual case counselors and a lawyer are on the third floor. But this isn’t a country club. It’s a food pantry and social service center for homeless and low-income Bronx residents.
“I like coming here,” says Robert De Jesus, 36, who lives nearby and says he’s been going to POTS for years. “Most soup kitchens are nasty. The shelters are worse than jail. The food is bad. The security is bad. Everything is horrible. Coming here, getting the free meals, helps you get ahead.”
De Jesus is part of a growing number of Bronx residents who frequent the food pantry despite having a job. In tough economic times some Bronx residents say they are still having trouble making ends meet. Part of the Solution, or POTS, which is located on Webster Ave. in the poorest congressional district in the country, helps give residents that extra nudge they need to get ahead. Open seven days a week, residents who fall within seven of the Bronx’s ZIP codes are eligible to use its services by providing proof of residency or a shelter referral.
“I have no drug problems and I have my own apartment,” De Jesus says. “But I still come here because things are not good even for people who have jobs.”
Angela Collard, POTS development associate, said many of the regulars at POTS are people who have to choose between paying bills or eating. The nonprofit, started in 1982 and funded through a mix of state funds and private donors, helped 25,000 in 2015. Thirty-six percent of Bronx residents do not have a stable source of food, according to Collard.
Lino Garcia, 50, who lives in the Bronx’s Little Italy, has been going to POTS for more than 14 years. He gets his hair cut and uses the dentist there.
“When I need help, I come here,” says Garcia who lives with his aunt. “Everything you need is here. This place is very nice.”
POTS is also the only soup kitchen of its kind in the Bronx that offers a restaurant-style atmosphere, serving about 500 people each day.
“A lot of people who come here can’t afford to go to a restaurant and miss out on the experience of being served,” says Nicole Benevento, 21, who volunteers at POTS through a student group at Fordham University. “It’s not just a buffet line. Here they get the restaurant experience.”
Philip Smith, 68, says if POTS wasn’t in the neighborhood there would be a lot more crime.
“It’s a positive thing they do,” says Smith, who works in Midtown Manhattan selling comedy club tickets. “They give back to the community.”
Smith says he enjoys going to POTS for the food, which he describes as delicious and nutritious.
“The government will never be able to fulfill its promise of taking care of all its people,” he says. “There are too many people. POTS actually helps the community.” -Kellie Ell
Lining Up Three Hours Early for Food
The food pantry at Union Grove Baptist Church opens at 9 a.m. on Wednesdays, but some local residents show up as early as 6 a.m. to wait outside.
“Some people even tied up the shopping carts on the fence and then come back in the morning,” said Luz Ramirez, a pantry volunteer.
The church, in the Claremont Village section of the Bronx, asks only for an ID and the number of people in the household. “If they’re in need, we help them out,” said Irene Pollack, co-chair of the deacon’s ministry and an assistant to the pantry’s director.
The 70-year-old church started the pantry seven years ago. Back then, it served about 150 visitors each week. Now, at least 240 show up each Wednesday as the number continues to increase steadily. This Thanksgiving, the pantry’s 20 volunteers supplied food to more than 1,400 families.
Families and seniors make up most of the clientele, which includes some regulars but shifts from week to week, Pollack said. She added that it generally isn’t the most destitute who take advantage of the service, but ordinary working people who need help keeping enough food in their homes, especially large families.
“There are homeowners that are down and out because they can hardly pay their mortgage,” Pollack said. “Let’s face it — food is expensive. You go into the supermarket and most people can’t afford the food they really should have because it is so expensive.”
The pantry is supplied by the Food Bank for New York City, in Hunts Point. The pantry places orders based on anticipated need. The food — everything from frozen meats to bags of apples to canned goods — is laid out on tables buffet-style, and visitors choose what they want. There are usually some dry goods left over, Ramirez said, so running out of food hasn’t been an issue.
The volunteers are usually busy keeping everything moving, Pollack said, so there isn’t much time to socialize. Still, people voice their gratitude. One woman recently got emotional. “She said, ‘You don’t know what this means to us,’ Pollack said. “And I think most people feel that way.”-Micah Danney
A Post-Thanksgiving Lull
Despite a low post-Thanksgiving turnout, a weekly Bronx food pantry was still feeding and educating visitors at the Davidson Community Center on a recent Wednesday.
The Davidson Community Center’s food pantry is a program offered Wednesday mornings from 10 a.m. to noon. Angel Caballero, 62, the executive director of the cCenter, has been running the program for the past 15 years as a way to give back to the community and educate them about programs and events offered in the area. As many as 120 residents make it out the food pantry every week, but due to post-Thanksgiving fatigue and rain, the turnout this week consisted primarily of seniors. Those who did come lined up outside the community center an hour in advance of the food pantry opening.
Visitors aren’t limited to homeless individuals or those from shelters. “We had a doctor come in who need services because he came from another country.”
Caballero said 15-20 volunteers packed up the food the day before. Typically, the food pantry gets roughly 10 volunteers every Wednesday to help hand out food, but only eight showed up. Caballero attributed the low turnout to bad weather.
The Davidson Community Center operates as a center for events, programs, and a meeting place for local community groups. It provides information and referrals for health care, housing and legal assistance in addition to an after-school program.
Senior Whole Health, a participating organization, has a partnership with the churches and community centers in the area. Representatives attend this food pantry every week, providing information on Medicaid benefits to attending seniors. The three representatives attended helped hand out food to visitors.
Steven Santana, 39, a marketing outreach representative, said, “Out of all my years working in health insurance, this is the most connected center for the community I’ve seen.”
Donations come from the Food Bank of NYC and local supermarkets, and volunteers usually alternate from New York Cares and Good Shepherd Services.
“The meal packages given out are intended to last at least two days, consisting of foods such as canned products. Fresh produce is given out the day it is donated to the community center so they won’t spoil.-Jeremy Ibarra
Different Customers, Different Needs
The line for food forms in the early morning, sometimes before sunrise.
On this gray Wednesday more than 50 food pantry guests waited in the rain outside of Saint Nicholas of Tolentine Church in University Heights. Empty carts were jammed one in front of the other as their owners chatted quietly.
Anthony Byers, 53, stood off to the side, keeping an eye on his cart in the line. Byers is familiar with food pantries – he volunteered in another local food pantry for six years stocking shelves. Byers recently developed a lung problem that makes it difficult to work; he now uses pantries himself for food assistance.
The line stirred as a volunteer emerged and started handing out numbers on pieces of cardboard to each guest.
“Myra maintains order,” Byers saids, smiling at Myra Gomez, the pantry administrator.
The doors opened at 9:30 a.m. and guests entered the basement of the church where the pantry is held weekly.
Gomez, 58, has managed the food pantry since 1999, a responsibility she balances with her job cleaning the church rectory upstairs. She noted she has seen a recent increase in the number of guests coming to the pantry.
“The population is growing, a lot of people are moving to the Bronx, a lot of people who have need,” she said in Spanish.
In preparation for the pantry, Gomez packed each bag herself with about $20 worth of groceries, ensuring each contains food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Contents included cereal, juice, canned vegetables, beans, rice and sardines or canned tuna. Most of the food comes to the pantry from United Way, Food Bank for New York City and from donations to the Saint Nicholas of Tolentine Church.
Gomez also packed bags for people in difference housing situations and collected clothing and toy donations.
“You have to know that, for example, people who live in shelters, sometimes they don’t have space to cook, so you have to give them food they can prepare with what they have,” Gomez said.
Gomez took a seat at a desk at the front of the room at 10:30 a.m.
“Hello! One! Numero uno!” she shouted.
The first patron came forward. Gomez asked for an identification card and how many children, adults and seniors reside in the guest’s household. Due to a limited food supply, guests were allowed to come to the pantry twice a month, a rule that Gomez strictly monitored.
On this day each patron got one grocery bag. Some weeks there is enough food for two bags per person.
Sister Maria Echezonachukwu Dim, 56, a nun from Nigeria dressed in a bright blue habit and white sweater, came forward and handed each guest a bag.
Dim, who is pursuing a master’s degree in religious education at Fordham University and volunteers at the pantry every week, said, “As I serve, I serve with my whole heart, so that they feel you know that I am respecting and appreciating the human dignity in them. That is the only thing I can add to the food I give them.”
Willy Martin, 47, a nursing assistant at the Bronx Veterans Affairs Hospital, held tightly onto her number, 18, and waited patiently to be called.
“I need a little help at times too, I’m not too proud or anything,” Martin said. “I know I have a job and things. I’m not that bad off but everyone once and a while everyone needs a helping hand.”
Martin said that when she has extra food, she re-distributes it to her neighbors in need. “It makes me feel great,” she said.
By 11:30 a.m., all of the food had been handed out and the hall was empty. Gomez and her team were done for the day.
By then, six blocks away at Creston Avenue Baptist Church, a line had formed for another food pantry, this one opening at noon. Familiar faces from the Tolentine line waited in the rain, putting in their time, hoping for another bag of groceries.-Sarah Kerr
Personal Bonds Develop as Food Gets Delivered
Bronx residents lined up on a chilly December morning outside Christ Pentecostal International Church on the corner of Third Avenue and East 178th Street for the church’s weekly food pantry.
At around 10:15, a young man arrived with keys to the church’s front door, and opened the pantry to prepare the pantry’s goods. A few of those waiting outside were volunteers, who followed the young man inside.
“He’s here! It’s opening soon,” another shouted.
The church’s food pantry opens every Saturday morning around 10 a.m. and distributes food to a group of faithful attendees, according to Miriam Morales, a former director and current volunteer for the service.
“It’s a wonderful thing here,” Morales said. “Thanksgiving came by, and everyone got their turkey and their little meal.”
Morales, 59, who has volunteered for the church’s food pantry for 12 years, said,
“Every Saturday we always have one or two new people, so we help them first,” Morales said. “We take care of them first so they can know about our system.”
Carmen Romones, 70, is a regular attendee of the pantry who lined up directly behind a few newcomers.
“I know all of the volunteers, and I’m here every Saturday,” Romones said. “I get food for me, and for my son, and every time I come here, I love it. The vegetables are my favorite.”
Zulma DeJesus, 63, helped deliver packages of fruits, vegetables, and other canned goods up from the church’s basement and shared laughs with other volunteers.
As a seven-year volunteer at Christ Pentecostal International, DeJesus said she’s inspired to develop personal relationships with attendees who regularly spend their Saturday mornings at the church’s pantry.
“A lot of them know me personally from the pantry,” DeJesus said. “Sometimes I volunteer, but I also stand in line at other pantries. I’ve learned that standing in line can be difficult, and now, being a volunteer is very rewarding and beneficial.”
Morales and DeJesus, working with a team of about six or seven other volunteers, lugged boxes of food up the stairs at a consistent pace, urging each other to get everything up as fast as possible.
“Some people complain and say ‘Oh I didn’t get much,’ but it’s what we’ve got,” Morales added. “Everyone is entitled to their bit of food, so no one gets greedy. We’ve got to share the bounty.”
Morales said that keeping everyone happy is a priority, and that they’ve been able to fulfill that priority without ever running out of food on a given week.
“We’ve never run out of food,” she said. “When the pantry is finished and we have some left over, we’ll keep it there, because there’s always one or two people who come late. But thank God, we’ve never run out. We always work it out.”
Being the longest active member of the volunteer crew, Morales believes God is watching her and the others who help the community.
Before the pantry opened up, a woman who visits the pantry every Saturday donated her own food and home-cooked meals to those waiting in the cold.
“She has been coming here for three months, and God has blessed her for doing that,” Morales said. -Fran Kilinski
A Kosher Pantry
Patricia Gourdine was the first to arrive at the Riverdale Y at 9:30 a.m. She moved heavy boxes of canned green beans and applesauce off the plastic table in the Senior Center’s kitchen, which serves as her only workspace. She brushed her short gray hair back as she begins to open the boxes and place cans on the table in organized groups.
Mary McLaughlin, Diana Minos and Shirley Maragh appeared a few minutes later, shaking their coats off onto folding chairs. They greeted Gourdine as they wash their hands and begin unpacking boxes of oatmeal, tea and Bumble Bee tuna.
The four women re-packing groceries in the cramped, dimly lit kitchen were volunteers for the Food and Hunger Project. Doctor Mathilda Furman founded the project in 1980 to help feed the hungry and homebound in the Kingsbridge, Riverdale and Marble Hill communities.
“Not only are there hungry people in Riverdale,” Gourdine said while opening a new box of tea. “But it’s a very senior community and they attach a negative stigma to being hungry and needing to ask for help.”
“We’ll be expecting a big turnout of people for some extra help for the holidays. Especially this month,” said Minos who is semi-retired and volunteers at several homeless shelters.
The Food and Hunger Project collects canned goods at several churches and synagogues, which are distributed weekly at The Church of the Mediator every Tuesday. The first Thursday of every month a supplementary package of kosher groceries are packed for elderly Jewish residents who can’t make it to the Y for hot meals.
Gourdine has been involved for 30 years, and was introduced to the program through the Riverdale Presbyterian Church.
“If other people would want to be involved they could just talk to the pastor or head of their congregation,” Gourdine said. “An annual appeal letter is usually sent out around this time to ask for donations of food and money too.”-Katherine Lavacca
‘It’s Never Just About the Food’
Even when the cupboard is bare, the food pantry at the Bronx Jewish Community Council (BJCC) in Pelham Parkway stays open.
“It’s never just about the food,” said Sandi Zelniker, a social worker at BJCC. “Ninety percent of clients who come to the food pantry qualify for benefits they didn’t know about or are getting benefits we’ve tapped them into.”
On a rainy Wednesday afternoon at BJCC, Zelniker looked through the doorway of the pantry. The day before, it had been bustling. Nearly 200 people had come by to pick up bags of food, supplied by the Food Bank for New York City. Each bag had a mix of food to feed a family for three days, with three meals a day.
But the day after the rush, the metal shelves were nearly bare. A few boxes of cereal, pasta and canned beans were some of the few items available.
“It’s not very glamorous,” Zelniker said as she surveyed the mostly empty, gray metal shelves in the small, fluorescent-lit room.
Though BJCC has a food distribution day only once a week, it is still open five days a week from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. to help those in need in other ways.
Zelniker and two case workers help people to apply for a variety of services such as SNAP benefits, rent relief and Section 8 housing.
If people really need food right away, they can take from what’s left on the shelves. In certain circumstances, BJCC will give people a voucher for up to $50 they can use at the Key Food grocery store down the block.
“I like doing the pantry too because I can always find clients that have other needs,” Zelniker said. “It’s about what brought you to this situation and what programs are out there that can help.”
More than 1,000 people visit the food pantry every month, a quarter of the 4,000 registered clients BJCC serves.
Many people are from the nearby area, but others come from as far away as Hunts Point, said David Edelstein, the director of food programs.
“People come from all over the Bronx because we are the only place that’s open nine to five for walk ins,” Edelstein said. “While we may not have the pantry open to the public, if you come and say I just walked four miles to get here, we will help you.”
He recalled when a group of four people in their early 20s arrived in desperate need.
“They were ravenous,” Edelstein said. “They said, ‘We just aged out of foster care and we share an apartment and none of us have a source of income.'”
Edelstein gave them several days’ worth of food, cab fare to get home and directed them to an agency that specializes in working with young adults in their situation.
“I’d never seen such grateful people,” he said.
Their open-door policy sets them apart.
“Our role is kind of unique,” Edelstein said. “We are the only walk-in social service agency for at least two miles. There is no other place where someone can show up, knock on the door and see someone empowered to help them.”-William Mathis
Church Shares Food and Good Vibes
Footsteps thudded down the stairwell and the first few faces appeared in the doorway of the church pantry. Volunteer Martha Pinckney, 55, waved them in.
“How many you got, mami?” she asked the young woman who was first in line. The woman put up two fingers. “Two?” Pinckney put a carton of eggs in her cart and nodded to the customer behind her. “How many? Just you?”
It was Friday morning at the Bright Temple AME Church in Hunts Point. A crowd of about 50 mingled among the pews, waiting to pick up food from the church’s pantry. In a community where many people struggle to make ends meet, the weekly pantry sends them off with full carts and good vibes.
“It makes the day go by good, even with your aches and pains,” said Charlesetta Wright, 81, who says doctor’s appointments and medication have strained her budget. “Lotta times they don’t have a lot of stuff, but they deal with it, share what they have; that’s what it is.”
The church began running a food pantry two years ago after Star Hendrix, 35, brought the idea to the church pastor. Hendrix is not a member of the church, but she says when she moved to Hunts Point from Long Island, she realized it was an area in need.
“I saw so many shelters,” she said. She says that some can’t work, and for many, even a full-time job doesn’t feed a family.
“I’ve been through it,” said Jessica Díaz, 34, the pantry director, who lived in a shelter with her kids only a few years earlier. “I know it’s hard.” Díaz says she doesn’t care if people are from the community or not: “I’m still making sure you eat,” she said.
Hendrix and Díaz are two of 10 volunteers who ran the pantry on Friday.
When Hendrix finished taking attendance upstairs, she went down to the pantry to rib the volunteers. She held up a pack of flour tortillas that one volunteer was calling pitas. “Ma, who told you these was pitas?” she asked, laughing.
The church provides food for up to 300 people on an average week. Díaz said the flow fluctuates, growing larger at the end of the month when many people run low on food stamps.
The pantry gets donations from Food Bank, a distributor of free food to New York food pantries, and The Point, a group dedicated to revitalizing Hunts Point.
In this week after Thanksgiving, supplies were low, but people took home beans, apples, potatoes, onions, tortillas, PB&J and a homemade cake—a gift from Wright, who made it with the blueberries she took home the week before.
“Every once in a while I might make ’em a big pan of different muffins, something different, so they can have their little coffee, get motivated in the morning,” Wright said with a smile.
“I like that they help us within their means,” said Germania Henríquez, 76, who left the Dominican Republic eight months ago to be with her daughter in the Bronx. “Many of us really need this. We’re humble people.”
Erin Schneider, 28, who came to the pantry with her mother-in-law, Luz Ramos, 77, says she had to stop working when she developed severe asthma. She says her husband, who had a brain tumor removed a few years ago, has also been unable to work.
Now, she says, they are struggling to support themselves and their son, who has autism. “So this helps a lot,” she said, coughing. “She didn’t want to come, but I said we have to because we need the food.”
Cheryl Ware, 50, a volunteer, says that sometimes supplies run low and at times they’ve gotten down to just beans or beef, some small thing to help people stretch what they have at home. But she says they always have something to share. “We won’t let anyone walk out with nothing,” she said.-Samia Bouzid