Food Bank for NYC and the Fight Against Hunger in the Big Apple
I had no idea what to expect when I boarded a shuttle bus on the Upper East Side heading to the Bronx. It was a midsummer day — July 23rd, 2015 — and I was on Food Bank for New York City’s Mission Engagement Tour. I made some assumptions about what that would look like, but I soon learned the takeaways — from visiting three distinct locations that day — were far greater than I could have imagined.
First stop: Food Bank for New York City
It was 8:30am when the organization’s President and CEO, Margarette Purvis, braved a backward stance on a moving vehicle to explain to our tour group how Food Bank for New York serves over 63 million meals a year to 1.5 million people. 2.6 million people in New York are “food insecure,” meaning:
1 out of every 5 of our neighbors relies on soup kitchens and food pantries.
“What do we call the people we serve?” Margarette asked as we pulled up to our first stop on Center Drive in the Bronx. “New Yorkers. We just call them New Yorkers.”
The staggering statistics weren’t what struck me the most as we entered the 90,000 square foot warehouse and listened Daryl Gardner, Food Bank’s Director of Food Distribution, detail how food is acquired, packaged and distributed. Everything operates under a strict influence of Project Dignity, an initiative Margarette had just described, which aims to give those standing in food lines back their dignity.
“Food comes in with pride and goes out with pride,” Daryl explained while demonstrating how the food is weighed, inspected, tracked and packaged.
“If we wouldn’t eat it, we wouldn’t serve it.” The emphasis on providing quality meals is evident as each package is inspected by a staffed nutritionist following the My Plate Nutrition Standards to ensure healthy, low sugar, low sodium, low fat meals. These programs are not intended to be a band-aid or a quick fix, but a setup for healthy, empowered living, packaged with pride. Most people don’t donate fresh foods, but when someone receives a package from Food Bank for New York City, they’re not getting a box of leftover cans, they’re receiving fresh produce, protein — actual sustenance. And that’s all the hard work of Food Bank for New York City. It takes 150 employees and 8 thousand volunteers to make this possible. The packages Daryl and his team create also support campus pantries and teaching healthy eating habits have become part of the curriculum Food Bank provides to each school in the areas they serve.
Entering into a new part of the warehouse, we were met with a brisk gust of wind and saw a door that flew up and back down as workers crossed. Daryl dared a few of us to go into what was a massive refrigerator and as we ran back out, one of the team members followed. Daryl introduced Karim, who was equipped with a winter coat and a digital scanner strapped to his wrist. With the help of technology Karim fills 225 orders an hour. Daryl joked that if he filled any less he would take his coat away. Soon after, a story was relayed to me of how Daryl is so loved by his team that when Hurricane Sandy hit, every member carpooled, hitchhiked and walked to make sure he had 100% turnout from them.
Next stop: Bright Temple AME in Hunts Point
On the way to our second stop, Bright Temple AME in Hunts Point, Margarette pressed the importance of meeting hunger where it is. Those were really just words to me until we unloaded from the bus and walked along the church’s border, where people with bags and fold up chairs lined the fence. According to Monique, the pantry’s director, the line begins forming up at 6am even though they don’t begin distributing food until 10am.
Hunts Point is an area that has a “meal gap” — the point at which household food budgets fall too short to secure adequate, nutritious food year-round — of more than 6 million meals.
A young woman in her twenties, who was working in the pantry at the time, offered a story of how she came to be involved. In high school she had volunteered at a food pantry. A few years prior she had fallen on some hard times and was unable to feed her two children. “I felt ashamed to have to be in the line,” she said. “There are so many people out there who take without appreciating what’s been given.” She choked up and didn’t continue because it was too difficult, but her point was made: she and the others in line were not the kind of people to not appreciate.
The two Food Bank for New York City’s most requested items overall are diapers and dog food. So, it appears the top motive that brings people to the food line is actually taking care of others — kids and animals.
Last stop: New York Common Pantry
Our last stop was the New York Common Pantry. From the moment we stepped off the shuttle, the experience was different than the last. The doors opened to the well-funded center, and we stepped into a pantry manned by a dozen volunteers in matching blue shirts. They operated like a well-oiled machine as we took the elevator to the second floor and sat down around a conference table with lemonade. Daniel Reyes gave a Powerpoint presentation on how their their initiatives, Live Healthy!, Project Dignity, Help 365 and Choice Pantry and how the systems they have built have been implemented into the community they support. This was a center that had funding.
We walked out to see a custom-built RV, a year in the making. Margarette talked about how this was one way they were meeting hunger at the source. I asked Margarette how she looks at a problem as big as hunger and breaks it down into something approachable. Her response: “Focus on the people. Look at the people around you that you can help right there in that moment, and it’ll grow from there.” During our conversation I began feeling a little foggy. I’d been up and moving since 6am. It was now after 1pm, and I hadn’t had a thing to eat yet. I missed one meal, and it was affecting my ability to think clearly and hold a conversation.
While walking my dog Sunday morning I saw a line coming out of a church on my street. New Yorkers lined a fence in my neighborhood with folding chairs and bags. A woman came out and informed everyone that supplies were low that day. Margarette’s words repeated in my head. I dropped my dog at home and right there in that moment joined the volunteers, sorting clothes and passing trays.