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How Covid Turned Food Pantries Into ‘Mini-Costcos’

As the sun set on a recent Saturday afternoon, Joel Matos fist-bumped and thanked the dozen or so volunteers who were leaving the outdoor food pantry he runs out of a church parking lot on the border of Sunset Park and Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

Then Mr. Matos, the founder and director of Holding Hands Ministries, quietly gazed at the pallets of canned goods and produce, and the mound of cardboard boxes that still needed to be cleared. Only five volunteers remained, including him and his wife.

“This is when I start to get scared,” Mr. Matos said. He then sent a bat-signal emoji to a friend, asking for help.

Mr. Matos, who also works Monday through Friday for the New York Police Department, said he would text a few more people during his dinner break. Otherwise, he and his skeletal crew would likely end up working until 9 or 10 that night.

he good news is that there’s plenty of food being distributed to the city’s hungry, about 1.6 million people, according to the Food Bank for New York City, a nonprofit that does a lot of the distributing. This means that smaller food pantries on the receiving end are bursting at the seams with products but struggling without the infrastructure to store and share them.

At the height of the pandemic, about 40 percent of the city’s 800 or so soup kitchens and pantries closed permanently, according to Leslie Gordon, the Food Bank’s president. The places that remained open became de facto hubs, expanding their hours and receiving larger and more frequent deliveries, practically becoming “mini-Costcos” overnight, said Mariana Silfa, of City Harvest, another nonprofit that distributes goods to locations across New York.

“Suddenly, everyone needed extra everything, like forklifts, pallet jacks and refrigerators,” Ms. Silfa said.

Now it is not uncommon to hear words like “warehouse optimization” and “streamlined inventory management” from the staffs at these small pantries, many of which are distributing 60 percent more food than they were in 2019, according to the Food Bank for New York City.

“There was a day when I saw bags of sweet potatoes stacked in our nurse’s office, and I thought, ‘How can our warehouse be that full?’” said Diane Arneth, the executive director of Community Health Action of Staten Island, a health and social services nonprofit, which runs a pantry with a large warehouse in Port Richmond, Staten Island.

In the early days of the pandemic, the warehouse became disorganized as food deliveries increased exponentially. Staff members there had reached out to several local grocery stores to learn tips about storage management, but the shutdown stymied communications. Eventually, the warehouse workers simply learned by doing.

As distribution shifted outside to follow social distancing protocols, the warehouse needed new equipment. Grant money was used to buy a carport, heaters, tables, chairs, tents, tarps and walkie-talkie sets. But the two electric pallet jacks were probably the nonprofit’s most important investment, said George Barreto, the director of pantry operations.

“Sometimes it would take us hours to unload the food from the truck,” he said. “Now it’s been cut in half.”

In the Bronx, the Rev. Emaeyak Ekanem’s pantry suddenly became one of the largest distribution sites in the borough.

“We initially didn’t know what to do when these large trailers came with all this food,” Mr. Ekanem said. “The learning curve to run an operation this size was very steep.”

Fortunately, the National Guard swooped in for a few months to help run his pantry, which is sponsored by Christ Disciples International Ministries. He learned how to divide his pool of volunteers to work in shifts so that the line moved quickly. He also formed a team to collect data from pantry clients, and bought a walk-in refrigerator and forklift. But he would still like a conveyor belt to move deliveries to the church basement for storage. Right now volunteers are using a wooden plank.

Upgrades at various pantries come from private donations and through grant funding from larger nonprofits. Food Bank for New York City said it was spending $14 million to strengthen its member network. City Harvest has more than doubled its annual grant budget to $430,000.

St. John’s Bread and Life, an emergency food service nonprofit in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, has spent about $250,000 to increase capacity. It is finishing an upgrade of its refrigeration, which includes a new 20-foot cold-storage unit bought with the help of City Harvest funds, according to Sister Caroline Tweedy, the executive director. Electrical upgrades were made to its building and pass-through windows installed to provide contact-free food distribution. There are also plans to  buy a box truck and expand the operation’s mobile pantry services.

Mr. Matos, of Holding Hands, is concerned about mounting costs. He said it had been tough coming up with money to pay for an exterminator so the church parking lot isn’t overrun by rodents. He usually needs six tanks of gas per week to operate the forklift, nicknamed “50/50,” as it starts up only half of the time. “I try not to show how worried I get about the operational side of things,” he said.

Increased demand has also meant neighborly grievances. When the food line at Holding Hands got longer, area residents and businesses complained to the police and to Mr. Matos about the noise and the mess people left behind. Restaurant owners complained about lines — sometimes 10-plus blocks long — snaking past their outdoor seating.

As evening approached, and Mr. Matos walked down the street collecting trash, he stopped when he saw a plastic bag filled with orange goop.

“That’s not good,” Mr. Matos said, looking a bit defeated. “That’s the shrimp bisque we distributed last week.”

Correction: April 7, 2021
An earlier version of this story misstated the role of the National Guard in helping the Rev. Emaeyak Ekanem run a food pantry in the Bronx. Last year, the National Guard helped Mr. Ekanem set up his pantry for increased demand. It did not provide Mr. Ekanem with training prior to the pandemic, as he was never part of the National Guard.

Source: New York Times