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N.Y.C. Food Banks Adapt to Pandemic’s Long Haul

Persistent food insecurity and economic pressures have forced aid organizations to expand and adapt their systems for getting food to those in need.

“Food Bank for New York City is the largest food assistance organization in New York City. We service about 800 or so agencies across the five boroughs in New York. We move 40 trucks in and out of here on a daily basis. We’re actually moving more food out of the warehouse than we ever have before. The challenges we’re facing are challenges similar to a lot of businesses out there. We have trucks that we have purchased that were waiting on delivery that have been delayed. And then we also have to balance that with the fact that we’re constantly looking for drivers to put in those trucks. And we’re doing that in an environment where the volume is growing.” “We served over 1.6 million meals from this location last year. And though we have seen a decrease in the amount of clients in as opposed to the height of the pandemic, we’re still dealing with the aftermath of the pandemic. And across the city, we’re seeing a 44 percent increase in New Yorkers who rely on food bank services.” “In my house, there are eight people and two babies. And we are only three people working in the house. So, it’s important for us because we have no much money to buy food.” “A lot of the supply chain issues are being handled all the way in the Bronx at our warehouse and taken care of by our team there. Gratefully, we have the food that we need right now. But we also have partners who are working hard across the city that are seeing lines go for several blocks that are calling us up at our warehouse and asking for more food because they have more people.” “Out of this kitchen, daily, we’re sending out between 808 and 850 meals per day, Monday through Friday. The need is greater than it was, but I think what it’s done is help to open up a lot of people’s eyes to see that this has been real all along. It’s just that the blinders are off now, and everybody can really see how much has been needed.” “The numbers of folks that don’t have anything to eat, it’s unacceptable. And it’s not going down. And we were already dealing with a crisis pre-Covid, so now we have this bigger crisis and this bigger imperative in ensuring that our neighbors are getting food.”

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Persistent food insecurity and economic pressures have forced aid organizations to expand and adapt their systems for getting food to those in need.CreditCredit…Niko Koppel/The New York Times

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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