Photo Credit: Obed Obwoge
Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the safety net catching New Yorkers experiencing food insecurity was barely holding. Pre-COVID, 1.8 million New Yorkers received public food assistance. Additionally, many New York City students relied on school cafeterias to eat three meals a day: More than 70% qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, based on their family’s income.
Today, as the coronavirus continues to impact communities of color disproportionately, the demand is higher than ever. The increased demand on the emergency food system is partly due to skyrocketing unemployment rates in the city. In an instant, New Yorkers who never had to rely on food pantries suddenly found themselves dependent on New York City’s emergency food network.
Our Director of Immediate Needs & Public Spaces, Heather McGreevy, has been working to address food insecurity for more than ten years. But she still wasn’t prepared for the emotions she felt at a recent food distribution at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, where approximately 2,000 New Yorkers began lining up at 6 am for an event that wouldn’t start until noon. The event was a partnership between New York Cares volunteers and the Food Bank for New York City.
“Seniors in walkers stood for hours on that line. Children without their parents stood for hours on that line,” Heather said. “I walked the line, the line that stretched for block after block. I walked the line, up and down, over and over, asking them to protect each other by spacing out, reassuring folks that they would receive food, and thanking them for their patience.”
Food rescue organization City Harvest estimates that even before the pandemic, the number of people experiencing food insecurity throughout the five boroughs was larger than the entire city of San Francisco. Today, the number of New Yorkers in need of food has risen to one in four, while food supply chains have been disrupted. The food providers that remain open are seeing up to ten times the number of clients, and are in critical need of volunteers to help meet the ongoing demand.
Volunteers play a crucial role in emergency food response by allowing food providers to meet increased demand and help organizations to pack, organize, and efficiently distribute food. In April 2019, volunteers served 72,733 meals. In April 2020, that number was 305,253. In total, New York Cares volunteers have served a staggering 3.8 million meals between the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in NYC in March and July 1, 2020.
For 33 years, New York Cares has responded to pressing community needs by creating relief programs serving vulnerable populations across the boroughs, and recruiting, training, and deploying thousands of volunteers. Since COVID-19 relief efforts began in March, more than 19,000 volunteers have given around 60,000 hours of service.
Back at the Barclays Center, that surge in demand was plainly visible to Heather. “Only a few weeks earlier, I was at distribution at the same location. We had a high volume of people - 400 - but nothing like today. In only a few weeks, the number [has] more than tripled. What’s worse is the line we saw today is what we see all across NYC.”
Despite the emotional nature of the experience, Heather saw thousands of volunteers who continue to show up through COVID-19 with kindness and dignity toward their fellow New Yorkers as points of light to celebrate.
Heather recalls a conversation she had just before leaving the event with a woman named Jeannie, who had been waiting in line for hours. “I asked if she got what she needed, and if she had the flyer for other pantries,” Heather said. “She confirmed she had, and I wished her well. She asked me to come to her. She said, ‘Baby, I love you.’ ‘I love you, too, Jeannie.’ And it’s that simple. We’re all trying to love one another in this deep dark.”
If you would like to volunteer for a hunger project in your neighborhood, check out our list of upcoming opportunities. You can also donate to our Sauce Pizzeria campaign. Sauce has stepped up to donate pizzas to our community partners, helping to restore a small sense of normalcy and comfort in this unprecedented time.