By Andrea Pineda-Salgado

Two weeks ago, we told you about the incredible crisis food pantries are facing and their need for support. The shortage of food and increase in prices has left hundreds of New Yorkers hungry or scrambling to find affordable food. Hand-in-hand with food pantries, soup kitchens are also facing their share of struggles. We spoke to three soup kitchens that operate across the five boroughs. Here’s what they had to say:

St. John’s Bread & Life 

St. John’s Bread & Life is more than a soup kitchen — it operates a food pantry, a mobile soup kitchen and a mobile food market. Part of its mission is to respect the dignity and rights of all people by providing access to healthy, nutritious food. Since the beginning of the pandemic, it has maintained its beliefs and kept New Yorkers fed via the soup kitchen and food pantry. Government grants and support from New Yorkers who wanted to volunteer allowed it to serve more people than it had served before the pandemic. As the pandemic enters its third year, aid has been declining, food and funds are running short, leaving soup kitchens like St. John’s Bread & Life struggling.

“As we move forward, we are starting to see some cutbacks or reductions in support. That’s because people think Covid is over and we have to move back to a different way of being. That is not necessarily the case,” says Caroline Tweedy, executive director of St. John’s Bread & Life. “Covid is still rampant so we have to try and figure out where to get those pots of money.”

Large numbers of people are still coming to St. John’s Bread & Life for support, but there’s simply not enough: not enough help, food or funds. At St. John’s Bread & Life:

  • Sixty five percent of soup kitchen and food pantry patrons are low-wage earners. This means they have a job but they do not make enough money to make ends meet.
  • Fifteen percent of soup kitchen patrons are homeless. The percentage has stayed the same throughout the pandemic.
  • The soup kitchen is operating on a grab and go basis. It currently distributes around 1,500 meals per day, compared to 800 meals per day prior to the pandemic.
  • Price in food is changing so shopping habits have changed. Rather than shopping from a local vendor where the price of tuna rose to 75 cents per can, St. John’s Bread & Life switched to purchasing in bulk for 25 cents per can. 
  • The need has quadrupled since before the pandemic. From July 2021 to June 2022, 4.2 million meals were served compared to 3.1 million in 2020 and less than 1 million in 2019. At St. John’s Bread & Life a meal is considered 1.3 lbs of food, therefore its 32 lb food pantry bag is equivalent to 24 meals.

“Food pantries and emergency food programs are designed to help people get over the hump at the end or the beginning of the month,” Tweedy says . “But what’s happening now is that it’s evolving into a source of full time support for some, because they can’t make ends meet. Food is too expensive and it is a basic human right.”

Masbia Soup Kitchen

Masbia Soup Kitchen has been around since 2005 and expanded to three locations in 2008 when the recession devastated New Yorkers. Masbia Soup Kitchens can be found in Flatbush, Queens and Borough Park. Like St. John’s Bread & Life, Masbia was on the front lines helping New Yorkers stay fed since the pandemic began. When the citywide lockdown was announced in March 2020, it gave its patrons two weeks worth of meals, not knowing the pandemic would last more than two weeks. At one point, the soup kitchen was open 24 hours due to the overwhelming numbers of people in need of emergency food. 

“Now is the hardest moment since the beginning of the pandemic,” says Alexander Rapaport, executive director of Masbia Soup Kitchens. “During the pandemic there was a philanthropic spirit going on. People were giving a lot and we raised a lot of money online. People were helping each other. Later the government [funding] came in. There was a lot of food donated by hotels and airlines. We had a lot of food [that lasted] until the end of last winter, but now we don’t have enough food. We are open a lot less hours. We can’t keep up.”

Staff serve up a plate at the Masbia Soup Kitchen. Photo: Andrea Pineda-Salgado

Masbia is an example of what happens when support is significantly reduced. In order to help its neighbors adequately, Masbia has had no choice but to cut services.

  • At the pandemic’s peak, it was helping approximately 7,500 families each week across the five boroughs via the food pantry. Now, it only has the bandwidth to help around 3,000 families.
  • The soup kitchen and food pantry used to be open 24 hours a day but now its hours have been cut to eight hours each day. 
  • It used to serve almost 1,000 grab and go soup kitchen meals per day, it now serves 200 per day. 
  • People who want food at a Masbia site must use an app to participate. Rapaport can see how much need there is through the app. On a typical day around 1,000 people try to get a spot but only 200 people are given an appointment slot. “What happens to the hundreds who tried but couldn’t [get an appointment]? That’s our biggest nightmare,” says Rapaport.
  • Masbia Soup Kitchen has also seen price increases in staple foods that have become increasingly difficult to afford. A pound of flour was 50 cents pre-Covid, now it costs 89 cents; a pound of pasta was 40 cents, now it’s 60 cents.

“Everybody wants to go back to pre-Covid, but the food situation is just not ready to go back. We can take our masks off, get vaccinated and open up places, but the food needs are not back to normal — they only got worse,” says Rapaport. “All levels of government are not getting it, we need more food now. The “food variant” is the strongest [Covid] variant right now.”

NYC Love Kitchen 

The NYC Love kitchen serves Inwood in Upper manhattan. It is more than just a soup kitchen and offers an emergency food pantry and refers people in need to community services. It shut down for two months during the early days of the pandemic. In May 2020, it began operating once again but the need has only increased. 

  • During 2020, NYC Love Kitchen was serving around 30 people per day, during 2021 it was back at pre-pandemic numbers averaging 70 people per day, but in 2022 the numbers crept over one hundred. In April, it hit the highest amount yet: 120 people per day — and has stayed that way since. 
  • Thirty percent of NYC Love Kitchen’s visitors are homeless who often come to the soup kitchen everyday.
  • A large percentage of the soup kitchen’s population are elderly, who also depend on the soup kitchen for food every day. 

Tiffany Morris, director of the NYC Love Kitchen, says that it is often easy to judge those who stand in line at a soup kitchen, but you never know when you’ll be the one in line.

“Anybody is one paycheck away from having to need [a soup kitchen],” she says. “I’ve had people who are ashamed to come here and they try to hide and I get it. But at the same time, we are happy we are here and able to help. It’s not always easy to ask for help but [volunteers] just want to treat them with respect and dignity because it is hard to be in a position where you have to depend on others for your basic needs.”

Help these soup kitchens continue to help their neighbors. Just like the food pantries, they too need your help now more than ever. Here are some ways you can help:

St. John’s Bread & Life

  • Donate money. You can choose to donate money monthly or just one time although anything can help.
  • Volunteer. Volunteers pack food pantry bags, assist in the kitchen, cleanup the site or pack produce. There is a vaccine requirement. If interested, fill out a short application form

Masbia Soup Kitchen

  • Donate food and other items. Help for Masbia is just one click away, buy food or other items via its Amazon wishlist. Items like pots and pans used to cook food, peanut butter and tuna fish can be donated via Amazon.
  • Donate money. You can choose how much you want to donate, but if you donate $10 you can sponsor a soup kitchen meal and a $54 donation covers a grocery package. 
  • Volunteer. You can volunteer in different ways depending on your skills. You can help with kitchen prep, mopping and cleaning windows or even proofreading publications. All you have to do is fill out a short application.

NYC Love Kitchen

  • Donate money. Donate to the NYC Love Kitchen via paypal or mailed check.
  • Volunteer. rivers, bakers, folks to plan menus, help with marketing and social media management are needed. Visit its website for more information. 

Donate food and other items. Donated food items will be turned into a soup kitchen meal or will be in a food pantry bag. Check its website to see which items you can or can’t give. Have a car you can’t sell? Donate it to help transport meals.

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