Charities join forces to plead for state cash to continue food distributions

City Harvest delivery man brings boxes of food for public.

Food distribution charities have joined forces to request funds from Albany to maintain their food pantries and kitchens to help the many people who have lost their jobs and benefits and can’t afford basic foods in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.

Leaders of these charities say that if emergency funding is not made available in the midst of this crisis, “half of the food distribution sites will close in New York City at a time when more people are losing their jobs and cannot afford to buy food.”

Two of the largest organizations, City Harvest and the Met Council for Jewish Poverty, are struggling to maintain their operations as volunteers are dropping out over fears of catching the contagion and costs rise as they try to obtain food for distribution. Both organizations are seeking $25 million in emergency state food aid, warning a tenuous network of volunteer food pantries, generous food suppliers and cash-strapped non-profits will falter without assistance.  

“Our most vulnerable, the home-bound are impoverished elderly, are more vulnerable than ever.  We need emergency funding to continue our emergency food distributions so that we can keep New Yorker’s fed and healthy during this crisis” said David Greenfield, CEO of Met Council on Jewish Poverty, the largest distributor of free kosher food in America.

Met Council is currently servicing 40 food pantries at 149 sites. They are supplying the city with two million pounds of food every day this week, Greenfield said. While they are able to get food, “we are paying a lot more for it.”

“Depending on the item, we are paying between 30-200 percent more for produce, such as chicken, vegetables and up to 180 percent more for eggs,” Greenfield said. “The problem simple, people are going to Whole Foods and buying 10 dozen eggs and stocking up on that and basics driving up the wholesale price and the big stores like Walmart can afford to pay that and we have to compete with it. Add gloves, Purell, gloves and our budgets are well overextended.”

Met Council food trucks bringing in tons of food for the public.

Greenfield said in the last 10 days, they have spent an additional $1.5 million above budget.

“It’s simply not sustainable so we’ve teamed with City Harvest and we went to Albany and told them we can’t continue to do this so if the government doesn’t step in during the next few weeks, 32 percent of food pantries in NYC are closed – of 2,000 food pantries.”

Jilly Stephens, CEO of City Harvest said operations are becoming more difficult as many more people are waiting on lines for food because “10’s of thousands have lost their jobs.”

“We must be ready because people are losing employment and many more will lose jobs in the months ahead,” Stephens said. “This is something we will have to do for months, if not longer.”

Stephens said that while food and donations are still coming in from a variety of sources, they are working with 400 food kitchens and pantries where the need has been growing quickly. Their Bronx Mobile Market attendance was up by 40 percent, Stephens said, and the need is growing.

And donations are down, and they are forced to buy food when they haven’t needed to do so.

“Our costs are going up and we are buying food, but before this hit, we were rescuing 66 mil pounds of food, and we would receive several thousand turkeys,” she said. “In disasters like this, we now have to buy food we need and all different types of food, – the mini-disaster kit boxes contain enough staple food for two days.”

Met Council volunteers load of vehicles to feed families.

Meanwhile City Harvest is seeking to hire more drivers and even shorten shifts. She called her drivers and volunteers “real heroes.”

“Our drivers are on the front lines and they are paid emergency bonus each week – this adds to our cost as well. We will need more packaging, supplies, this is just the beginning,” she said.

Greenfield said they will work with other organizations to convince the state legislature to help. A letter was signed by 36 legislators asking for increased funds to the food distribution groups.

“People call me and say ‘hey, I lost my job and the food pantry closed’ – I don’t know what to tell them,” Greenfield said. “We are failing the people who lost their jobs, nearly half a million in New York City alone. Our financial donations are down, some of our staff are sick and we must hire more staff and we are spending so much money in these uncertain times – it’s just not sustainable.”

The two organizations have appealed to state leaders this week, also urging additional funding for Catholic Charities, the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York and Long Island Cares. 

Thirty-two of the state’s lawmakers have already signed on in support of the request. The state’s budget is currently under negotiation and must be resolved within the next five days with an April 1 deadline.

To help, the following websites tell donors where to assist: Bowery Mission, https://www.bowery.org/donate/ City Harvest cityharvest.org Met Council for Jewish Poverty https://www.metcouncil.org/ Most organizations are asking for both financial and volunteer assistance.

Big delivery from City Harvest is loaded onto carts for the Bowery Mission. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

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