By Andrea Pineda-Salgado

At the pandemic’s peak, thousands of New Yorkers received help from food pantries across the five boroughs. Photos of hundreds of people standing in line at food pantries with empty carts and shopping bags waiting to be filled circulated on the internet — people were hungry and food pantries were there to help. Two years later, photos of long food pantry lines are no longer circulating, but it doesn’t mean the lines are any shorter and there isn’t a food crisis. Food pantries across the five boroughs are struggling to help the many New Yorkers in need amid the rise in food prices for even the most basic food staples.

People line up outside Lion’s Share Food Pantry. Photo: Silvia Garces

‘Demand only seems to rise’

Silvia Garces is the co-chair of the Lion’s Share Food Pantry that operates out of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. Its food pantry is entirely funded by donations and operates on the second Saturday of each month. At the beginning of the pandemic it was serving nearly 200 families each month. This past April, need swelled to 623 families. 

“At this point, we said this is not sustainable, we don’t have enough funding to do this. We decided to cap it at 500 people because we can no longer afford food or to give food to so many,” Garces says. 

Food pantries are being forced to turn people away for lack of supply. Photo: Andrea Pineda-Salgado

Bigger food pantries, like the one at Reaching Out Community Services (RCS), are also struggling. Thomas Neve is the founder of RCS and has been overseeing its food pantry since 2007. The organization is part of his life-long mission to help his neighbors, but this year he had to do something he’s never done before: turn people away. Outside of the food pantry, a bright green sign reads ‘Sorry. No new registration for food due to supply shortage.’

“We still have a lot of people who want to come and receive food, but we are not able to handle it because we don’t have the same resources now,” Neve says. “A lot of the food that we were able to secure through the Food Bank for NYC or City Harvest has been cut by almost 50%. We can no longer accept new clients while still maintaining those who are pre-registered. If we do, we’ll crash out the whole program because we’re biting off more than we can chew.”

A woman fills up her cart with food at the Reaching Out Community Services food pantry. Photo: Andrea Pineda-Salgado

Other food pantries like the Astoria Food Pantry, which was born out of the pandemic, have had to make difficult choices regarding the quality of groceries it provides. 

“Our bags have been shrinking. There’s always going to be a pain point,” says Mary Holzman-Tweed, a volunteer. “Larger bags to serve fewer people better, or smaller bags to serve more people a little worse. We have decided on the second … demand only seems to rise.”

The impact of rising food prices

Eggs are one of the most sought-after items at the Lion’s Share Food Pantry and last month the food pantry team almost stopped giving them out. A dozen wholesale eggs used to go for $1.60. Now they cost $3 a dozen — almost double. Garces says the team decided to keep the eggs, but lose the soup they usually give to compensate for the money spent. The same goes for the bread. The pantry usually pays 30 cents per roll, but the grocery store increased the price to 35 cents per roll. This may seem like a small price change, but when the price changes, families are only able to receive two rolls of bread instead of the usual three. 

“Every product has easily gone up by 10% to 15%,” Garces says. “Prices have affected us.” 

Food items available at the Reaching Out Community Services Food Pantry. Photo: Andrea Pineda-Salgado

Donations to the food pantry have gone down as well.  The food pantry used to provide baby food to elderly adults who have dental issues, however, donations have dwindled and Garces has to be strict on who is receiving what.

“For the first time last month we had to turn people away,” she says. “For us to give baby food we had to see the child. Of course, people have a child that they may not want to bring — a niece, a nephew or a grandchild — but we simply need to stretch what we have as much as we can.”

The Astoria Food Pantry gives out food twice a week. On Mondays people line up to receive a bag of food and on Saturdays that are delivered to neighbors who are homebound or immunocompromised. Due to the price increase of eggs and milk, they no longer give them out on Mondays. And while they are still included in the Saturday bags, the list of clients has been capped at 63 people. 

Neighbors in need getting food at the Lion’s Share Food Pantry. Photo: Silvia Garce

“There’s a certain frustration that we have to be here at all,” says Holzman-Tweed. “The existence of food pantries is a policy failure on the part of every level of government. But it’s getting harder…we are getting as creative as we can trying to find as many fundraising opportunities [as we can].”

It’s just as difficult for the larger food pantries like RCS which are funded by donations but almost entirely rely on partnerships with organizations like City Harvest, Food Bank for NYC and United Way. These organizations allocate a specific amount of food and resources to RCS but recently the amount of products available to the food pantry has been cut down significantly.

“When the allocation is minimized, your purchases are minimized and based on that, your inventory is minimized and based on that, your service level is going to be minimized,” says Neve. 

Families who wish to receive food from RCS must register with the organization. RCS is vital to many New Yorkers with eating restrictions — registered families are allowed to pick and choose which food pantry items they need based on their preferences. The organization has around 12,000 families registered, and is no longer accepting newcomers due to supply issues. 

“It kills me when people have a hard time just to eat,” Neve says. “We take things for granted so much and I’ve had to separate my emotions from that because [I see] so many people that go through hard times.”

We must have empathy for our neighbors

Angelina Leahy, 55, is fully disabled and cannot work, and because of her dietary restrictions groceries get expesive. She visits the food pantry toward the end of month when her SNAP benefits run out. The bag of groceries she gets at the food pantry is enough to last her five days. 

“I cannot buy foods that I can eat because they cost so much money, so I come here,” Leahy says. “[The food pantry] helps people out a lot. It gives them a little bit of something they might not have in their refrigerator or something they just can’t afford — like me. It helps me, it helps me alot.”

Antonio Zheng currently works two jobs. working two jobs as a car mechanic and a janitor. The father of four and comes to the RCS pantry every two weeks where he picks items his kids love, like chicken and cereal.

Antonio Zheng is happy with the items he got at the food pantry. Photo: Andrea Pineda-Salgado

“[The money I make] is not enough,” he says “A lot of things are getting expensive, especially the food, I haven’t been able to make my bills, but with the food pantry I am.”

More challenging times are yet to come for these food pantries. As inflation persists and as a recession seems more of a reality than a possibility, the desperate need for food is already approaching crisis level. Empathy, understanding and donations for the folks lined up at the pantries are needed now more than ever.

“You don’t know what’s behind somebody’s face. That somebody could be your neighbor in your co-op in Jackson Heights and that person is stretching that pension to the point that they need to go to a food pantry,” Garces says. “There’s so much behind each face and we don’t know the whole story. If people are willing to be on [a food pantry line] at 6:30 a.m. even in winter, it is because they need it.”

How to Help:

Food pantries are in desperate need of your help, here is how you can support Reaching Out Community Services, the Astoria Food Pantry and the Lion’s Share Food Pantry. 

How to help Reaching Out Community Services:

How to help Astoria Food Pantry:

  • Make a monetary donation to the Astoria Food Pantry through the Astoria Mutual Aid Network’s fundraising site.
  • Donate food, hygiene and cleaning supplies. Highly needed items include: cereal, oatmeal, tuna, cooking oil, cookies, coffee, diapers (size 3/4/5/6), pasta, menstrual pads, tomato sauce, cleaning supplies and baby wipes. 
  • Volunteer, the Astoria Food Pantry is in operation every Monday and groceries are delivered every Saturday. You can also volunteer at other departments within Astoria Food Pantry. 
  • Host a donation drive for the Astoria Food Pantry, fill out the form on its website. 

How to help Lion’s Share Food Pantry:

  • Make a monetary donation through the church website to their GoFundMe. Now through July 31 your donations will be matched by generous individual donors. 
  • Donate food and extra supplies by dropping them off at St. Marks Episcopal Church’s Parish Hall, Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. or by appointment on the weekends or via check payable to St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and indicate Lion Share Food Pantry on the memo. Financial contributions are tax deductible.
  • Purchase tickets to select baseball games at CitiField and Lion’s Share Food Pantry will receive $10 from each ticket sold. More information here

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