Food pantries continue to face evolving challenges as Covid-19 has slowly changed from a pandemic to an endemic. Throughout the worst of the pandemic government relief programs aided food pantries and private donations were high. However, three years since the pandemic’s peak, the need has essentially stayed the same — and in some instances worsened due to rising food prices, but donations and supply have both dropped dramatically. Food pantries are serving more people and are struggling to keep pace, leaving the city’s most vulnerable at risk. 

Epicenter-NYC reporter Andrea Pineda-Salgado caught up with four food pantry leaders and volunteers to hear about their ongoing challenges and what they’ve been up to since we last spoke with them this past summer. 

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

An SACSS food pantry volunteer packing bags. Photo: Andrea Pineda-Salgado

Astoria Food Pantry

The Astoria Food Pantry is a volunteer-run pantry born out of the pandemic. Its food supply and other services such as its “Free Store” and “Rolling Library” are based entirely on donations from community members. Catie Fireman has been a volunteer at the pantry since 2020 and has seen the pantry shift as the pandemic has progressed. 

Epicenter-NYC: What has the food pantry been doing since we last spoke in the summer?

Fireman: Since last summer, we’ve seen a steady increase in the number of people visiting us, both for our food pantry and our free store. There have been a lot of people coming to our free store to get clothes and other types of things that they really need, especially for the cold weather and especially those who recently arrived in New York City.

Epicenter-NYC: What has been your biggest struggle throughout the past six months?

Fireman:  At the end of last year we had a budget crisis where we were dipping down to almost having nothing in our savings. We cut down our distribution of food to every other week instead of every week. When we told the community about that challenge, luckily, the community responded with a lot of donations. Our end-of-the-year December fundraising was really strong, so now we are back to distributing every week. If we can keep some of this momentum, we hope to increase the number of bags we distribute every week or maybe just the amount of food in each bag. 

The Astoria Food Pantry storefront. Photo: Catie Fireman

Epicenter-NYC: How can people support you?

Fireman: If people are able to donate money or food, that’s certainly appreciated. Money goes a long way because we are able to buy food in bulk and therefore get some cost savings out of it. One thing I’d like to emphasize is that we are very open with our storefront space and we try to use it as much as possible — we see it as a resource that we want the community to take advantage of. Our space is your space and it helps us grow our community, grow our donor base and the number of people who come to us for services.

I think there is this sense that people are back to work. The pandemic was a special time when people were really, really in need and there is a sense that that is kind of gone now. That really is not the experience we’ve had on the ground. There are so many factors that affect people’s need for food and the need is not going away.

South Asian Council for Social Services (SACSS) Food Pantry

The SACSS is a food pantry based in Flushing, Queens, that offers Asian food selections. It provides holistic support to its clients, from senior services to children’s services. Mary Archana Fernandez is the director of family support services, who works closely with the food pantry team.

An SACSS volunteer hands out food to a community member. Photo: Andrea Pineda-Salgado

Epicenter-NYC: What has the food pantry been doing since we last spoke over the summer?

Fernandez: Over the past few months, some of our clients have been victims of ‘skimming.’ What happens is that when they use their SNAP benefits cards you must swipe it through a machine. Sometimes that machine is not a proper, authentic machine. It records all the data and then somebody else is able to use their SNAP card. From December to January, we have had almost 10 to 12 clients who have had this issue. It’s a lot for them, one of our clients lost $1400. This has put a lot of pressure on the food pantry because if people aren’t able to buy food, they come to the pantry. 

Epicenter-NYC: What has been your biggest struggle throughout the past six months?

Fernandez: The price of food continues to increase. We are a culturally palatable food pantry. We provide food for Asian palates. Food Bank, the regional food supplier for food pantries, doesn’t have that kind of food. It’s something we have to purchase, but the price has gone up, especially for South Asian food like rice and lentils. There is also a struggle we anticipate. There was an emergency grant people were getting. (In March 2020, Congress temporarily increased SNAP benefits because of the Covid-19 public health emergency. Supplemental EA SNAP benefits were issued to households in addition to their normal monthly SNAP benefit amount. As a result, households received more SNAP benefits each month than they would have normally been eligible for based on their income and expenses.) The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sent notices to beneficiaries that after February the benefit amount will be reduced. For a lot of people who use that money to buy food, they will become very dependent on food pantries. SNAP is a great program, it lets people buy their own food. A lot of our clients are really appreciative and depend a lot on SNAP benefits. 

Epicenter-NYC: How can people support the work you do?

Fernandez: I think volunteering definitely. A lot of food pantries — we thrive on volunteerism. At our food pantry, we have a lot of community members that access the food pantry but also volunteer here. There is a lot of work that goes into putting a food pantry together and making sure people have food. People can also donate money

St. John’s Bread and Life Food Pantry

St. John’s Bread and Life is a nonprofit organization based in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. It provides a range of services to the community, including a food pantry and hot meals truck. Caroline Tweedy is the executive director of St. John’s Bread and Life.

The St. John’s Bread and Life mobile soup kitchen. Photo: Caroline Tweedy

Epicenter-NYC: What has the food pantry been doing since we last spoke?

Tweedy: We’ve seen a super increase in the number of newly arrived asylees. We’ve been trying to work with many of them because they don’t get any benefits and they don’t have anything when they come, so what they can get from us is food, baby supplies, toiletries — basic needs. We work with our Medicaid coordinator who was able to help some of the families that have children get medical assistance. We’re helping about 25 new families per day. Most of them are asylees. Since June we have assisted 7,000 newly arrived migrants. Our daily pantry numbers hover around 500-600 per day. Our mobile market serves 250 per day and our mobile soup kitchen does between 250-400 meals. The number is increasing significantly and government assistance is remaining about the same or less than we got during the height of Covid. They’re really asking us to do more with less to stretch the dollar and it’s becoming increasingly difficult. 

Epicenter-NYC: What has been your biggest struggle so far?

Tweedy: When we were established we were a pit stop for families. Most who came to us had SNAP benefits and when they didn’t make it to the end of the month we figured out that they usually had a three-day hiatus for SNAP. So pre-Covid we were able to fill that three-day gap. After Covid we became the primary source of food for a lot of people. That was when our costs really escalated. We had to make some tough decisions. We wouldn’t turn anyone away but we had to limit the amount of times people could come in.

We try to give 32 pounds of food per week, per family. We have not limited the poundage because 32 pounds of food for a family of three is equivalent to three meals a day. There is always fresh produce and dairy but we’ve had to work around the system and change things drastically just to meet the number of people in need.

Epicenter-NYC: How can people support you?

Tweedy: Money is always the best thing, we’ve had a number of organizations, banks or corporations step up and offer to run a food drive for us. That’s great because we can tell exactly what we need. People can volunteer their time by doing a food drive. If people are interested in volunteering all that information is on our website. If someone wants to donate cash or gifts we also have a director of development who would be able to work with them to ensure that money goes to the program of their choice. 

First Baptist Church of East Elmhurst Food Pantry

First Baptist Church of East Elmhurst in East Elmhurst, Queens, has been hosting a food pantry every Saturday and a hot meal program every Wednesday for more than a decade. The church’s pastor, Reverend Patrick Young, works closely with the pantry. 

Seniors line up to receive food at the First Baptist Church food pantry. Photo: Reverend Young

Epicenter-NYC: What has been your biggest challenge so far?

Young: The biggest problem is to make sure we have enough food to meet everyone’s needs. If food banks start having shortages, all the people start having shortages. We are just making sure we are consistent in providing the food. I may order a large order of food from the food bank, but the food bank may not have all of that in their warehouse. So my orders are cut down and they reimburse us for what we paid. The cost of buying has shifted because of inflation. We have to spend more to get the quality and volume that we had before. We could get a $50,000 grant and it will be eaten up before the budget period ends. Where we used to allocate $2,000 a week, we now have to spend $3,000 or $3,500 a week. We believe in trying to help those who can’t help themselves, and a lot of the people utilizing our services are migrants. The rise in migrant populations coming to NYC has increased the demands.

Epicenter-NYC: How can New Yorkers support you?

Young: If they want to give a financial donation via Zelle toward our efforts it is always very much appreciated. It will help us expand and provide the services needed for the community. People can also donate food, for example a pallet of cereal or something like that. (Contact Keicia Edwards at 718-651-5332).

Epicenter-NYC: What do you want New Yorkers to know about food pantries?

Young: We are trying to help the most affected in such a way that they do not feel like they are less of a person. I value them because sometimes when they are on the food pantry line, they may feel like they are less of a person or that people look down on them but when they come to our food pantries we embrace them and encourage them. Also, even in the midst of all the challenges our workers have been working since the pandemic — before the pandemic, during the pandemic and now. We’ve had many volunteers come and serve and everytime they come they leave with a great experience.

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