New York Food Banks Expand to Meet Demand for Aid in the Pandemic

Once a month, Dominga Espino, 59, heads from her job as a home health aide in Harlem to a nearby food pantry to pick up groceries for her family in the Bronx. She has come to the pantry for years, but she said pandemic-related job losses among the members of her household had contributed to making the assistance more urgent.

“One used to work in the supermarket, and the supermarket closed,” she said. “And one used to work in a restaurant, and the restaurant closed.”

Ms. Espino is one of 1.6 million New Yorkers who receive food assistance from the Food Bank for New York City. In the second winter of the pandemic, demand at city food banks, kitchens and pantries has remained high. The need for hot meals has dropped from pandemic highs, but demand for groceries has continued to grow.

At the same time, supply chain disruptions and labor shortages have complicated the systems used to distribute food to needy families. In response, food aid organizations have scaled up their operations citywide.

From a 90,000-square-foot warehouse in the Bronx, staff members at the Food Bank for New York City, sort, package and ship food to more than 800 soup kitchens and pantries across the five boroughs. The amount of food they distribute has more than doubled since the start of the pandemic, said Dennis Garvey, who manages logistics for the organization’s warehouse.

“We really haven’t seen a drop off,” he said. “This winter, this current quarter, we’re actually moving more food out of the warehouse than we ever have before.”

To handle the growing volume, the Food Bank of New York added a second shift at night in its warehouse. It also set up an in-house trucking operation to get around nationwide truck shortages.

But twenty-five trucks originally expected to be delivered in June have still not arrived, Mr. Garvey said. And then there’s the challenge of finding drivers amid a shrinking work force and increased competition.

Those logistics and shipping delays have had a significant impact on food aid in New York. The Masbia Soup Kitchen Network, which operates three locations in Brooklyn and Queens, has found creative solutions, like ordering prepackaged produce to avoid having to manually sort produce in bulk, said Alexander Rapaport, the organization’s executive director. But he added that the transportation issue had been more difficult to navigate.

“What if the trucker just doesn’t show up? Which means the vendor doesn’t show up and we have people in line? Which kind of happened yesterday.” Mr. Rapaport said Thursday. “We had truckloads of fresh produce, but there were not enough truckers at the vendor’s place to send out all the deliveries.”

At Community Kitchen and Pantry in Harlem, the pandemic has meant distributing more food with fewer volunteers. But organizers are still managing to provide 800 to 850 meals to needy families every Monday through Friday from their kitchen, which gives the culinary manager and head chef, Sheri Jefferson, optimism.

“I’m fortunate that we have a staff that are as passionate as I am about what we’re doing,” she said. “We still get it done.”

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