Gotham Gazette

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De Blasio Names 'Food Czar' to Combat Impending Hunger Crisis with 'Mobilization We've Never Seen Before'

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Mayor de Blasio serves food (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)

As the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has spread in New York, people have begun buying food off the shelves of local supermarkets to prepare for prolonged periods of isolation in the face of the virus. Public schools and senior centers are closing, many of which provide vulnerable New York City residents with food and meals, and tens of thousands of people appear to have already been laid off from their jobs, all leaving New Yorkers increasingly worried about food access.

While food is still coming into stores, some nonprofit emergency food providers report added premiums as demand has risen and struggles to afford the quantity of food they need during this crisis, leaving many poor New Yorkers increasingly vulnerable to food shortages. A huge surge in unemployment and lost work-hours could quickly push many New Yorkers to the brink of not knowing where their next meals will come from or how they’ll feed their children.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is taking a number of steps to ensure access to food for the city’s most vulnerable -- roughly 20% of New York City residents live in poverty, and just over 14% of New York City residents are food insecure, and rely on services such as food pantries and soup kitchens for meals, according to Food Bank For New York City, -- including meal handouts at shuttered schools and new measures announced this weekend.

As part of larger efforts to combat the spread of coronavirus and its impacts, de Blasio on Saturday announced a restructuring of some of his senior leadership, including naming Kathryn Garcia, currently the city’s sanitation commissioner, as “COVID-19 Food Czar,” responsible for creating, operationalizing, and overseeing “a structure for working New Yorkers to get the food they need during this pandemic. Garcia will also work with City and State agencies, including the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy, as well as food distributors to take any action necessary to ensure the city’s food supply continues without disruption.”

Meanwhile, Food Bank and other nonprofit emergency food providers and their allies are also attempting to combat the impacts of the pandemic’s reach throughout society.

“1.5 million New Yorkers rely on the Food Bank For New York City every year,” the Food Bank posted on Instagram March 16. “As the #COVID19 health crisis continues to unfold, that number will grow. Our warehouse remains open and our trucks are on the road to ensure food is delivered to our network of over 1,000 soup kitchens and food pantries across the city."

On March 17, Food Bank For New York City issued a call to New Yorkers for help.

“Amid mounting concerns around the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) public health crisis, Food Bank For New York City is calling on New Yorkers to support those struggling with food insecurity during this critical time. Food Bank anticipates an extreme rise in need for food and resources in the coming weeks, particularly among vulnerable New Yorkers such as seniors with chronic medical conditions, families with children who may lose up to two free school meals each day as NYC’s public schools remain closed for at least the next five weeks, and low-income and hourly workers,” it wrote in a press release.

“I'm desperately concerned that a lot of New Yorkers are running out of money and that's the money they use to buy food, among other crucial necessities,” de Blasio said at a Sunday press conference.”

Calling Garcia “one of our most extraordinary public servants,” de Blasio said that as Food Czar she will be working with many entities to “create a citywide network to ensure that food is available to those who cannot afford it.”

“It's going to take a mobilization such as we've never seen before,” de Blasio said, saying Garcia will “work with all of those agencies that currently do food relief, the Human Resources Administration, the Mayor's Office of Food Policy, obviously state agencies, Food Bank, soup kitchens, so many amazing nonprofit organizations. She'll work with all of them, but she's going to build something bigger and more comprehensive than we've ever seen in New York City.”

De Blasio said the work begins with “the assumption that food will become much more of an issue going forward and that many people will have a strain that they have not experienced previously because of huge disruptions in their own income.”

In a Sunday statement to Gotham Gazette, Garcia said:

“Ensuring that New Yorkers have a steady supply of food, whether that is a home-delivered meal or provisions from a grocery store, is a top priority. To ensure this, we have had to create brand new models to get food directly to those who need it. New York City is focused on ensuring that the COVID vulnerable population has food. That is the immediate need that we are solving for. We have the full food landscape on our radar, including the tremendous newly food insecure population as a result of job loss. Additionally, we have our eyes on the larger food supply so that we have constant awareness of any vulnerabilities and intervene. We are working with private food vendors, delivery services, and the robust emergency food feeding network to make all of this happen. We will have more to say about these efforts soon.”

The United Way of New York City has already developed a fund to help ensure all New Yorkers have access to food. “We have launched the UWNYC COVID-19 Community Fund to raise the critical funds needed for food and supplies,” Sheena Wright, president and CEO of United Way of New York City, said in an email to Gotham Gazette. “With support from New Yorkers across the City, this fund will allow us to assist in closing the gap. We want to help people who rely on pantries and kitchens to be well-resourced and prepared for this situation.”

David Greenfield, CEO of Met Council, said his organization has been preparing an emergency plan since the first case of coronavirus was identified in New York. Met Council provides food to 40 kosher food pantries in New York, serving, on average, 56,000 people per month, according to Greenfield.

“We’ve seen an explosion, really a shocking explosion and need and the people are coming to us from across the spectrum, from assessment, from anything, from housing, to social services, to seniors who are shuttered in their homes, to quite frankly, tens of thousands of people who have lost their jobs for the first time,” Greenfield said in an interview.

“I don’t think people appreciate the strain that not-for-profits are under,” Greenfield said. “Unlike government and private corporations that have deep benches of reserves, we don’t. We’re living generally month to month. And what's happened now is that because of this huge extra new need, we’re actually purchasing more food so that we can meet needs. For our organization alone, we have projected that this month, just in the next two weeks, we are spending an additional $1.1 million in our food department just on coronavirus response.”

Even before naming Garcia to the Food Czar role, Mayor de Blasio promised major pieces of a response to a potentially drastic deepening of the city’s food insecurity crisis.

New York City public schools were closed as of Monday, March 16. Given that many students rely on school for two free daily meals, officials are trying to ensure students still have access to food as the city shifts to remote learning for an indefinite period. During the first week of school closure, the city handed out meals outside of schools, from the morning through lunchtime, and, according to the mayor’s office, gave away roughly 560,000 meals.

Beginning Monday, March 23, de Blasio tweeted on Friday, “435 sites will be open for Grab-and-Go breakfast, lunch AND dinner for children. Any child under 18 is eligible. None will be turned away.”

The mayor followed that up by saying “We’re also partnering with @DoorDash to get food to the homes of medically fragile students. No child will go hungry. Not on our watch.”

According to a Friday evening press release from the mayor’s office, it’s actually going to be “439 hub sites citywide” where young people can get food, “100 of the sites were high participation sites in Summer, 2019, and the remaining sites are schools where more than 50 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced meals.”

The release also mentioned the developing partnership with Door Dash to deliver meals “to students whose medical needs are so significant that they should not be leaving the home even to get meals.”

It continues to say that “food delivery will also be made available to children who reside in City shelters.” Families can “search “Free Meals” on or call 311 to find a site near them. Starting Monday, families can also text FOOD or COMIDA to 877-877 to find a meal near them. A complete list of meal hubs is available here.”

The Food Education Fund, a nonprofit in the city, has created a webpage, the COVID-19 Food Hub NYC, to “share resources on available food sources for families and share general resources created by our partner organizations.” The website includes a map of food service providers donating to families of public school students in the city, how to volunteer, to donate, or to add resources to the website itself.

Senior centers in New York City were also closed as of March 16, suspending all activities but also still providing to-go meals to seniors who need access, and will make deliveries to those who cannot come to the centers themselves, according to de Blasio.  

As the city continues to see long lines at some grocers and runs on things like toilet paper, bread, and more, food continues to fly off the shelves and be replenished. De Blasio and others have stressed that the supply chains for food and basic household goods is sound. On March 16 he noted “a very intensive resupply in recent days,” but added that while this is good news, the bad news is everything is being snapped up quickly.

“But if there's someone in your life, someone older, someone with one of those preexisting conditions, someone who has a disability that keeps them from getting out and getting supplies they need, either help them by getting what they need for them or share your supply enough to help them out,” de Blasio said. But that was before much more restrictive orders were issued by Governor Andrew Cuomo, urged by de Blasio, to insist that people stay home as much as possible, forbid commuting for all those not deemed part of “essential services,” and stress the importance of not exposing the most vulnerable, especially older people, to infection with coronavirus.

These new restrictions, announced by Cuomo on Friday, make food access even more complicated for many. The governor did say that food delivery is an essential service.

And the supply chain remains a key aspect of the equation and nationally it is working well and increasing the amount of food distributed to meet demand, The New York Times reported on March 16. There will still be bare shelves at times as individuals nationwide continue to scoop up products and retailers figure out how to respond to demand quickly.

Greenfield argues that even though food supply is strong, it still disadvantages nonprofits. As grocery stores need more product to sell to meet need, they are willing to pay a higher premium, which forces nonprofit organizations, like food banks, to dish out more money to meet the demand they feel.

“We can’t compete with what they’re paying. They’ll pay anything. If you’re a grocery store, they will pay anything because their customers will pay anything. We budgeted a certain amount that we’ve always budgeted for the last 20 years,” Greenfield said. “We can’t afford to pay three times as much. We are, because we have no choice. What am I going to say, you can’t have eggs? So I’m buying it, but at the end of the day that’s costing me hundreds of thousands of dollars more.”

National advocates are pushing for food assistance as well. Hunger Free America wanted to see the federal government pass the “Families First Coronavirus Response Act,” a relief bill that would provide funds to make it easier for schools, senior programs, and food charities to provide alternative meals, and also create a “federally funded program to give extra food purchasing dollars to all families with children in closed schools,” according to a press release from Hunger Free. The bill was signed by President Donald Trump on March 18.

“This massive increase in the pre-existing hunger crisis demands a massive, highly-coordinated response by federal, state, and city government agencies, as well as corporations, nonprofit groups, and philanthropies,” Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, said in a statement. Once the Families First Coronavirus Response Act becomes law, he said, “one top priority for such joint efforts should be helping eligible families enroll in the new government food benefits available. The other key priority should be dramatically ramping-up the home delivery of meals to older Americans, children, and families who lost income.”

On a hyperlocal level, groups are taking action. The Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce is helping to lead the launch of an emergency food distribution center in Flushing. “The Flushing community is proactively organizing volunteers to contact local residents, including homebound individuals, who may need emergency food assistance ahead of a possible City lockdown this week,” a press release from the group said before Cuomo gave his orders that are not a “lockdown” per se, but amount to significant limits on what New Yorkers should be doing outside their homes and who they should be interacting with.

And some individual New Yorkers appear to be quickly responding on their own. A GoFundMe fundraiser page appeared late last week to raise money for the Food Bank For New York City. The page is called “Helping New York City During COVID-19” and was started by Frederick Joseph. It quickly surpassed its $20,000 goal, with the post noting that every $1 to the Food Bank provides five meals for those in need.

“Cancellations of large events, fewer people at restaurants, and school closings means that wage workers who live on hourly pay + tips are going to be having a harder time than usual making ends meet,” Joseph’s explanation of the fundraiser reads. “It also means that some adults and children who rely on meals from these places may struggle with hunger. We need to make sure that the non-profits who serve our communities have the resources both to keep their volunteers and staff healthy and to provide food to meet rising demand.”

As the situation develops, it is unclear how demand for food will change, especially since some are predicting this will be a six-to-nine month crisis, if not longer. “With schools closed and the overall uncertainty, we need a comprehensive approach to replacing these missing meals,” said Wright of United Way. “We will have to consider new food distribution strategies, maybe even going door to door to make sure people have the food they need. This is an unprecedented event, and I am not surprised that our food pantry and soup kitchen operators, who can, continue to serve their communities. I am so inspired by their dedication. They have modified their operations to adapt to this crisis, and we are so thankful for their fast response and commitment to meeting on-the-ground need right now.”

by Katie Kirker, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

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