We’ve told you about the long lines food pantries have been facing as the pandemic wears on. Hundreds of people, young and old, continue to line up at food pantries in search of groceries. They, and their neighbors in need, return home with a bag of food because of the volunteers who help to keep the pantry running. The job can be challenging, but fulfilling. Epicenter-NYC spoke to three volunteers from food pantries across Queens to hear about what a typical day is like for them at a food pantry.
Gloryvee Sanchez, Queens Community House’s (QCH) Pomonok Community Center Food Pantry
Gloryvee Sanchez began working at QCH’s Pomonok Community Food Pantry after receiving help from it during the pandemic. Sanchez was laid off from her job at a Brooklyn restaurant at the beginning of the pandemic. She knew times would be challenging and on her way to pick up her last paycheck, she noticed the food pantry and decided to get in line. Wanting to do something extra with her time, Sanchez began volunteering in April 2020. That volunteer position eventually led to a full-time job in June 2020.
“When I first started, people were very scared of everything that was going on with Covid. No one knew what was going to happen or where they were going to get food from and I was in that same predicament. They were scared and I was scared,” she says.
The QCH food pantry operates every Wednesday for Pomonok residents and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. for everyone else. Sanchez wakes at 5 a.m., has her morning coffee and is at the center at 8 a.m. By 9:50 a.m., she heads outside and ensures the teenage volunteers are ready to register people as they pick up their groceries. Some days are more challenging than others. On this particular day, Sanchez and her team had to update system information, but that task was a little difficult for Sanchez.
“The language barrier is my biggest challenge,” she says. “If I knew every language, that would be perfect.”
Asian seniors frequent this pantry, many don’t speak English and it’s hard to communicate when there are no Mandarin or Cantonese speakers to help translate. Sanchez and the team made a sign with translated names of the documents they needed to update information. Words like “ID” “telephone number” and “address” were placed on a sign. Sanchez just had to point to it when the time came.
Over 100 seniors were in line for groceries and Sanchez monitored the line making sure no one tried to get their food before registering. Sometimes she would walk along the food pantry line to diffuse any fights and answer any questions. Most people would smile at her and wave.
“You have to want to be around people, you have to be a people person and you can’t let people frustrate you as quickly,” says Sanchez. “People want to come and volunteer because they want to give back to the community. They were so grateful for our help when they were going through what they were going through and we helped them out.”
By 11:40 a.m., the line went from around the block to only a few families; 139 people had received their food. The food pantry has slowed down and no more than five families would come at a time. At 1 p.m., it’s time to close.
“It’s great work, it’s fun work and it’s enriching and you want to keep doing it. You want to come and volunteer, even if you only come once a week or once in your lifetime it is a good feeling,” Sanchez says. “When you come into this job you come with the mindset of ‘I want to help people I want to give back to my community,’ but when you meet people, you want to do so much more for them.”
Around 12:50 p.m., Sanchez and their team clean up the area and prepare for the next day. Sanchez heads out later in the afternoon. The next day she prepares for the incoming week at the food pantry.
Yolanda Ramon, South Asian Council for Social Services (SACSS) Food Pantry
Yolanda Ramon began volunteering at the SACSS Food Pantry before the pandemic in 2018. She works as a housekeeper and was passing by on her way to a doctor’s appointment when she saw a line of people waiting to get food. At the time, she needed food herself and decided to go to the food pantry. Every Wednesday, Ramon began to line up to receive groceries; however, one day, the line got very crowded and difficult to control. Ramon spoke to a SACSS worker and asked if she could help with organizing people in line. Her help was welcomed and she has been volunteering at the food pantry since.
“What motivated me was the anxiety people had to receive their food. Everybody wanted their food now, but there wasn’t a lot of order. I knew everyone was in need, but we need a little more organization so everyone can get their food,” she says. “Little by little, I began volunteering and of course, in the end, I would also get my bag of groceries. Now, I can volunteer more time,” she says.
On her days off from housekeeping, mostly on Wednesdays and Thursdays, Ramon comes to the SACCS food pantry, puts on a hairnet, apron, masks and gloves to begin packing the hundreds of bags that will be distributed to clients that day. The food pantry is open from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Ramon arrives at 9:30 a.m. to begin preparing bags.
She quickly, but carefully, assembles a bag of milk, oats, pasta and spaghetti. She then places it on top of wooden pallets that will be taken to clients lined up outside. Ramon and two other volunteers keep track of the amount of bags they packed by checking how many bags were used. By 11:20 a.m., they were already into their second box of 500-count plastic bags.
“I am proud of my work and I would invite others who can volunteer to come and collaborate if they have time,” she says. “It enriches us as people and brings you great satisfaction as a human being.”
Ramon and the team continue making bags. If an item runs out, they open another box, but that hasn’t happened yet. As the piles of bags get bigger other volunteers haul them to the people waiting in line. It’s a simple task but very rewarding for Ramon.
“I have a big desire to serve the community, and it makes me happy that people can get a bit of food. Some people line up enduring the sun, sleet and snow just to get some food,” she says. “People should not just feel the desire to [help others] but act on it. They’ll feel grateful.”
Ramon likes volunteering because she’s realized it’s much different from what her family tells her they’ve experienced in their native country of Colombia.
“When I tell my family what SACSS is giving, they are surprised because they say that in my country, unfortunately, organizations are not good,” she says. “There are organizations who take everything for themselves and leave one or two products for families in need. It brings me a lot of sadness.”
By 1 p.m., another volunteer comes downstairs to tell Ramon and others to stop making bags. The line is gone and only a couple of latecomers are left; however, the team has packed more than enough bags to feed latecomers. Ramon and the volunteers enjoy a break and some lunch. On this day, there was Popeyes chicken. Ramon cleans up her station and heads out for the day at 1:30 p.m.
Sabir Ali, ICNA Relief Food Pantry
Sabir Ali began volunteering at ICNA Relief during the start of the pandemic, He was working as a taxi driver and because of Covid-19, his ridership declined significantly. ICNA Relief needed help delivering groceries to homebound clients or those who had Covid. He didn’t know what to do with his free time, but he then met an ICNA Relief worker. Ali began volunteering, driving around the five boroughs delivering groceries.
“I had no work at that time, so I started doing home deliveries,” he says. “I felt good as I was driving and spending time delivering food. I began feeling nice about it. So I kept on volunteering at the food pantry.”
Ali wears his yellow ICNA Relief food pantry vest when he volunteers. The ICNA Relief pantry in Flushing is open every Wednesday from 12 to 2 p.m. The need for food is so great that people are lined up for food as early as 7 a.m. Ali usually shows up to the pantry at 10 a.m. to help set up and control the lines that are forming — as the day goes on, he has to focus more attention on controlling the line.
Most people lined up at the Flushing location are Asian seniors, some of whom are disabled and have wheelchairs and canes. Many of them are in line for many hours and often get exhausted and impatient. Sometimes the lines can get chaotic, but Ali has devised a system to control the lines.
Rather than having everyone line up on the same block where food is distributed, recipients form two lines on the opposite block. One for non-disabled people and one for disabled people, elderly seniors and/or pregnant women. Ali gives a number to about 20 people at a time; those 20 people then cross the street and line up again to pick up their food. Waiting can be difficult, but Ali’s charisma helps alleviate the wait.
“The people know me. I play with the people and joke with them to keep them busy and happy and everybody loves it,” he says. “It’s not easy to control the line sometimes. But if you have a passion for it, you enjoy it. We try to keep them happy and engage with them. So they can enjoy coming, even if they are just coming for food [we treat them] like family. My Wednesday family.”
Most seniors speak Mandarin or Cantonese — languages Ali doesn’t know. Still, somehow he can make the seniors laugh by playing guessing games or playfully mimicking their language. The seniors can forget about the time they spent in line waiting for food.
“When doing this kind of work, we must keep cool, be nice to them and smile. I really enjoy it. Even if someone cusses at me — no one has ever done that before, but even if they do, I am ready because [I remind] myself that this is not for me. When you are working for others, it must be real and from the heart,” says Ali.
By 12:50 p.m., both the food and lines begin to decrease. Ali walks back the last group of people to receive food while the rest of the team starts to pack up. When the last customer leaves, the crew packs up their tables and boxes and stows it all away. Ali helps too, and after he finishes, it’s time to get back in his taxi.
How to Help:
QCH, Pomonok Community Center Food Pantry
- Donate money. You can choose which department gets your donation at QCH. To donate to the food pantry click here.
- Volunteer. You can choose to volunteer at a food pantry or at one of QCH’s other areas.
SACSS Food Pantry
- Donate money. Your donation will go to SACSS overall.
- Volunteer at SACSS by completing an online application. State that you want to volunteer at the food pantry in the message box.