Food pantries see rising need, dwindling supplies

Food pantry items are seen at the Food Bank For New York City Community Kitchen & Food Pantry of West Harlem in New Yor
Food banks in Brooklyn are struggling to keep up with demand as the COVID-19 continues on.
REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Brooklyn’s food pantries are seeing a jump in distribution and dwindling supplies as hundreds more families rely on their services amid the current outbreak of novel coronavirus.

“It has been a tough time for us as an organization, it is like we are going into a new pathway that we have never been before,” said Dr. Melony Samuels, founder and director of The Campaign against Hunger, a food pantry in Bedford-Stuyvesant that provides services to indigent families across the borough. 

The heightened need for food services in Brooklyn follows a surge in borough residents seeking unemployment benefits. A whopping 43,558 claims were filed in Brooklyn within the seven-day period ending on March 28 — vastly outweighing the 1,603 claims filed during the same period last year. 

Samuels said the number of families served by her organization has quadrupled to include nearly 1,100 individuals per day, while Thomas Neve, the director of Reaching-Out Community Services in Bensonhurst, said his regular circulation of 10,500 families has spiked nearly 30 percent.

Both food pantry directors said they expect their numbers will only grow as orders to stay-at-home and close non-essential businesses remain in place — directives that could force more businesses to shutter permanently or lay off additional staff. 

“It is definitely going to come up because this is not something that is going to go away over the weekend,” Neve said. “This is going to be a while.” 

Despite the increase in demand, both organizations have not had to turn away any families due to lack of supplies, something both Neve and Samuels said has taken extraordinary effort on the behalf of their volunteers and staff. 

“We are constantly fundraising, asking friends and individuals to donate and we take that money and we buy food,” Samuels said. 

Donations from businesses and the surrounding community have also helped fuel the continuing operation of the food services, the directors said. 

“We have received donations from some of the residents in Brooklyn. Some corporations have come alongside,” Samuels said. “National Grid helped us get bags, Con Edison gave us a donation, FreshDirect has been giving us food.” 

Still, both food pantries are experiencing a rise in operational costs as food shortages require more purchases and the the influx of families necessitates more staff. 

“We have hired for the mass production, which is something we did not plan for,” Samuels said. “We hired staff because we can’t ask staff to do four times the amount of work that we are doing now,” 

To compensate for the increased spending at Reaching Out, Neve said he has had to dip into his organization’s reserves — something he fears could cause problems for operations once the crisis comes to a close. 

“Will we crash out when this over because right now we are depleting all of our resources?” Neve said. “Then what?” 

In the meantime, both pantries have moved food distribution into more open areas — either outside or into their lobby — and have modified operations to keep patrons six-feet apart and protect staffers.

“We have turned our benefit office’s lobby area into a distribution center,” Samuels said. “We have put up tents and they come in, go under the tent and take from different food areas and we have pre-packaged bags for families of four.” 

But through it all, Samuels and Neve said the support they receive from their community in times of crisis pushes them to continue their hard work. 

“Even though they are not with us, they are encouraging us with our donations,” Samuels said. “It makes me feel like you are not alone in this, like we are not taking this on by ourselves. ”