Article and photos by Anthony Tellez | Dec. 23, 2020
During an early and overcast December Saturday, volunteers at La Jornada food pantry set up tables for distributing bags to the public as trucks with shipments of goods arrived at its headquarters at Bland Houses, a public housing complex in Flushing, Queens. Outside, the line of people waiting for food continued to grow.
“It’s necessary with everything that is going on today,” said one woman in line who asked to be identified only by her first name, Carina. A mother of three children, she said her hours at a cleaning job had been reduced during the coronavirus pandemic. After hearing about the food pantry from a friend, she had come from her home in Jackson Heights to pick up a box of food as a way to reduce her living expenses.
Carina is one of thousands of New Yorkers who have found themselves in need of food aid during the pandemic. Unemployment has skyrocketed across the city, with the borough of Queens being particularly hard hit. According to November data from the Labor Department, the unemployment rate in Queens was 11.6 percent, compared to 3 percent in February 2020 before the city went into lockdown with the arrival of COVID-19.
As a result, food insecurity also has risen. In a June 2020 report, the Food Bank for New York City said a survey of pantries revealed that nearly three-quarters of pantries across the city reported an increase of visitors and by mid-April, a third of soup kitchens and food pantries were forced to close due to high demand and economic constraints.
When the pandemic started to creep into the city last March, Pedro Rodriguez, the executive director of La Jornada, was unsure of how to handle the rising demand for food. Initially, he considered closing the pantry for a short while, but he quickly realized that with people losing their jobs, the need for food would be more important than ever. “It doesn’t matter if we are in a pandemic, we have to help out despite the fear,” Rodriguez said.
The entrance to the Bland Houses on Prince Street was bustling with truck after truck of groceries and food boxes being dropped off and unloaded by volunteers. To the side of the trucks, people — many of whom had brought empty grocery carts — formed a line and waited patiently for La Jornada to begin distributing the groceries. Even before opening, the line stretched from the entrance of the Bland Houses to Flushing’s Main Street.
Inside La Jornada, volunteers packed an assortment of fresh produce into bags to distribute. At the height of the pandemic, La Jornada lost a majority of its volunteers, who had been older. With reports that older adults were more susceptible to COVID-19, many of the volunteers made the decision to keep themselves and their families safe from the virus.
Rodriguez noted that while older volunteers could no longer participate due to concerns over the virus, younger adults stepped in and picked up where the older volunteers left off. “It gives me faith to see young people giving back and the amount of generosity they have,” he said.
A majority of those volunteering at the La Jornada heard about the pantry through New York Cares, a centralized volunteer network. “As soon as the pandemic hit, the need tripled,” said Rachel Terry, team leader for the volunteers at La Joranda, who has been volunteering for New York Cares for 13 years. “There was a surge in volunteers when the pandemic hit, everyone is struggling right now.”
Part of the Solution, a soup kitchen based in the Bronx, has also seen demand skyrocket. Last year, it provided one million meals for people. This year it provided two million, said Daniel Rostan, the organization’s director of development.
He noted that the organization had lost a sense of community as guests were no longer allowed to dine in. “We miss being able to talk with and relate to and see on a regular basis the people that we serve,” Rostan said.
La Jornada also saw a sudden increase of people relying on its services. In 2019, Rodriguez was providing food for 1,000 families a week. Since the start of the pandemic, he said the group provides meals for 10,000 families a week. One of his main challenges is securing enough food to meet the demand. “That’s the battle every day, getting the food” said Rodriguez.
One of the sources of food that the pantries have relied on is the Farmers to Families Food Box Program led by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program spent $4.5 billion on purchasing produce from American farmers both large and small and sent the produce to food banks and other non-profits focused on food insecurity. Since May 15, the program has sent out 130.4 million food boxes for distribution across the country, but the program is set to end on Dec. 31, leaving many food pantries scrambling to find other sources of food.
As vaccines begin to roll out across the country and a second round of stimulus checks has passed Congress, the question remains as to how much longer can food pantries hold out until the demand decreases across the city. With the federal aid program ending in December, Rodriguez keeps on planning to provide food for those in need and hopes that the government will step up and help secure more food for pantries like his.
“Children are going to bed without food, seniors deciding between paying rent or buying groceries while the stock market had one of the best years ever, it just doesn’t make sense,” he said.