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A half-dozen recycling bags’ worth of apple slices were thrown out at a Bronx school on Thursday. The health crisis has forced sudden changes to meals programs at schools and elsewhere.

It has been a little over a month since the first positive case of COVID-19 was detected in New York City and the situation for community food programs and the people who need them is becoming more adverse.

Food pantries and soup kitchens are changing daily, or even hourly, and more people seem to need their services, though fewer seniors are volunteering and showing up to pick up food. 

“We have been able to reach about 200 [food pantries and soup kitchens], and one third, 31, closed due to the crisis. I assume most will re-open at some point, but who knows?” warned Joel Berg, Hunger Free America’s CEO. “Extrapolating to the larger list, my best guess is perhaps 100 to 150 agencies have closed.”

As of March 30th, “the number of emergency food programs having to close their doors continues to increase steadily—meaning there are even fewer places for New Yorkers in need to turn to for food” according to City Harvest, an organization that delivers excess food to a network of 400 soup kitchens, food pantries, and other community food programs across the five boroughs. “Seventy-four community food programs City Harvest regularly delivers food to have shut down, as a precautionary measure or due to lack of staffing.”

Sheena Wright, president and CEO of United Way of New York City, an organization that works with over 500 emergency food programs city-wide, says via email that “as of March 31st, we estimate about 30 percent have stopped operating temporarily. But that is changing on a daily basis. Some programs are taking it day by day and re-opening when possible.”

According to Dave Giffen, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, it has collected data on 416 food pantries and soup kitchens, of which “97 are currently closed, 303 are open, 16 undetermined, as of April 2.”

Nicholas Freudenberg, CUNY’s Urban Food Policy Institute Director, explained that “there are 800 food pantries and soup kitchens, or a combination of the two, around the city and 10 percent of NYC’s pantries have closed.”

“Everything changes from day to day, week to week. Now, every part of the food system is at risk,” Freudenberg added.

And that’s happening amid growing need. The CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy (CUNY SPH) and Emerson College ran a survey calling over 1,000 households in New York City and New York state to get a snapshot on how the COVID-19 has changed their ability to get food. It showed that “half of them reported some changes and difficulties getting food. People of color reported a higher number, though everybody saw some sort of disruption,” says Freudenberg.

“Latinx, Asian, Black and multi-racial and other households report higher levels of significant reductions in food availability compared to white households. Latinx and multi-racial and other households are almost twice as likely to report that their food availability was reduced a lot than white households” the survey reported.

Pre-existing needs growing deeper

There were approximately 1.2 million people living amid food insecurity in the city before the COVID-19 crisis.. “Now that number will go much higher for the upcoming months,” says Freudenberg.

On average, for example, in 2019 “we served 20,000 clients,” says Gregory Silverman, West Side Campaign Against Hunger’s executive director. Now, he says, “We are aiming to serve an additional 1,750 people via NY hospitals plus hundreds more via New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Children’s Aid.”

“We are seeing more new customers and fewer seniors,” says Silverman. 

On average, the Coalition for the Homeless hands out 800 to 1,000 meals around the city every night. “For example, last night at 51st East, we served more than 400 people in a place where we normally served 150 to 180 people,” says Giffen. “We have seen a 25 percent increase in demand.”

In a month like March, the Coalition for the Homeless meals program “served 840 people on average and now it is serving 1,120 people”, according to Juan de la Cruz, the Coalition’s program manager. And the population in need “it is like the city. You see the diversity of the city there, a combination of all types of folks and demographics: young, white, Hispanics,” he says.

From March 13 to March 28, City Harvest distributed 2.8 million pounds of food in the city. The organization has launched five emergency relief sites in places like Brownsville, Harlem and Long Island City. City Harvest plans to deliver between 4,000 and 6,000 pounds to each site weekly.

At City Harvest’s nine existing “mobile markets,” there’s been a 30 percent increase in attendance. “We are seeing new faces—people who have never before needed food assistance, and many more young families with children,” the organization says.

United Way of New York City and City Harvest operates Plentiful, a pantry reservation app that connects users to the emergency food network. These organizations “registered an astounding 12,854 new users in March. We expect these numbers to grow as the economic toll of COVID-19 continues to affect New Yorkers” says Wright.

In an effort to address the growing hunger problem, Mayor de Blasio on Thursday announced that three free meals a day will be available for all New Yorkers every weekday at more than 400 Meal Hubs.

Also Thursday, the fiscal 2021 state budget agreed on by the governor and legislative leaders included new money to support emergency food pantries.

The volunteer shortage

Not only are food providers doubling their efforts, but they also changing the way they regularly operate–because of a severe shortage of volunteers. “One of our pantries reported serving over 100 guests with a volunteer staff of two,” says Wright of the United Way.

The shortage is acute in part because older people–who have been told to be especially careful about potential exposure to the coronavirus–are the backbone of many food operations.

The majority of West Side Campaign Against Hunger volunteers were seniors. “For two weeks we stopped our volunteer program, and now all volunteers are 18 to 50 years old,” says Silverman.

Even the Coalition for the Homeless, whose volunteers were not predominantly seniors, has seen a sudden shortfall, from 12 to 15 volunteers on average to a headcount of six to eight now.



Read our coverage of New York City’s Coronavirus crisis.

Overall, “volunteer turnout is lower than ever,” says Kasumi Quinlan, part of In It Together NYC, a city-wide volunteer effort to keep food pantries open. “Even worse,” Quinlan notes, “in order to follow proper safety protocols, [food programs] actually need more volunteers to do the same work.”

Quinlan says her organization, like others, builds safety considerations into several aspects of the recruiting process. “We screen for volunteers who are healthy, at a low risk of complications due to COVID-19, and have not had contact with someone who is COVID positive,” Quinlan notes. “Once we decide they’re eligible, they receive detailed safety instructions about best practices. Our partner organizations have different measures in place, such as gloves, masks, hand sanitizer, social distancing, et cetera.”

All community food programs tell City Limits that they rely on donations so the best way to support their work is by donating funds. 

“Food insecurity has never been a matter of inadequate supply. There is more than enough food to go around,” Wright says. “As long as the supply chain remains uninterrupted food deliveries from distributors and food banks to programs will go on. The challenge is getting that food to vulnerable populations with the highest need and giving programs the funding to purchase the food they desperately need”.