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How to Get Food in New York Right Now — And How to Help Feed

The nonprofit City Harvest set up a food bank at the Tompkins Houses in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, March 18, 2020.
The nonprofit City Harvest set up a food bank at the Tompkins Houses in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, March 18, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

How has the coronavirus crisis impacted access to food in your neighborhood? Tell us.

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As the weeks on “pause” drag on, basic tasks like doing laundry or having enough food to feed a family continue to be challenges for many New Yorkers.

We continue to hear from readers worried about the latter: From people who are homebound, to others who’ve lost income and some who just aren’t sure how to get food safely.

To get answers, we’ve spoken with volunteers making food deliveries, service providers making sure seniors are fed and food pantry operators who are facing unprecedented hurdles.

Here are some resources on how to get food in New York City during this crisis:

If You’re Homebound and Need Food

With elderly New Yorkers advised to isolate, all meals previously served at the city’s senior centers are being delivered to homes. The city has automatically signed up all 60,000 people who were already connected to a city-run senior center to get emergency food delivered to their homes, according to a spokesperson for Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, who has been named “food czar” by Mayor Bill de Blasio.

If you or a senior you know were not being served by a senior center already, or for some reason you haven’t been automatically signed up for food delivery, you can call 311 and say “get food,” or sign up for the delivery service here.

The city is also keeping a list and map of food centers and resources online.

Many groups that previously served community meals are now making deliveries. At the Chinese-American Planning Council, staff has shifted to home-delivered food for the clients of the five senior centers it runs in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn, according to Carlyn Cowen, CPC’s chief policy officer.

She worries, though, that her elderly clients are lacking the daily check-ins with friends and staff.

“You risk, as we transition to the no-contact delivery, missing something in terms of the ability to check on their wellness and meet their other needs,” she said.

A woman gets lunch at the Chinese-American Planning Council's Open Door Senior Center, in Manhattan's Chinatown, on March 11, 2020. The center is now making home deliveries
A woman gets lunch at the Chinese-American Planning Council’s Open Door Senior Center, in Manhattan’s Chinatown, on March 11, 2020. The center is now making home deliveries Photo: Gabriel Sandoval /THE CITY

For anyone homebound, not just seniors, Cowen recommends reaching out to one of a number of groups making grocery deliveries.

Volunteers doing that work are popping up all over the city. A group of young people founded the group Invisible Hands just as the outbreak hit, organizing an army of more than 10,000 volunteers in early April. Those who need a delivery can fill out the group’s request form here, but bear in mind: The group cannot complete orders with EBT and SNAP because of the difficulty using the system “without the SNAP recipient present,” the group said on its website.

Maryam Mudrick, who founded the Astoria Mutual Aid Network with her husband, frequently refers people in need of help to Invisible Hands.

They’re one of dozens of mutual aid groups that have sprung up in the five boroughs in recent weeks to connect people who need help with neighbors who can assist them. To find a mutual aid group near you, search this database organized and maintained by Mutual Aid NYC.

Mudrick, an events planner temporarily out of work, rallied more than 500 volunteers in two weeks with help from a “core group” of seven or eight organizers, she said.

“We’re building the plane as we’re flying it,” she said.

Through an online ticketing system, the group has fulfilled requests as disparate as fostering a dog whose owners were both sick with COVID-19 to delivering ice cream and candy to cheer up an 11-year-old girl whose parents were both ill.

But the most common request is for grocery and prescription deliveries, Mudrik said. Sometimes, individual volunteers help cover the cost of the food, too — but it’s done on a case-by-case basis, as the group itself doesn’t have that kind of funding.

“We tell the volunteer that there is a person who needs groceries and cannot afford to pay for it. That’s the ask,” she said. By and large, she said, those requests get picked up, too.

If You’re Low on Cash

The city’s food pantries and food banks are under enormous strain right now. But there are still resources for people who need help filling the fridge.

• The city has centralized all of its information about food resources in one place here. You can also call 311 and say “get food” to learn about various programs.

• All New Yorkers can get three free meals a day at more than 400 locations across the city, de Blasio announced on April 2. To find a location, visit the city’s free meal program website or text “NYC FOOD” to 877-877.

The program, run through the public school system, was previously available only to children. But the mayor opened it up to all adults, as well, after demand proved lower than expected, THE CITY previously reported.

The meal hubs are open to children and families from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., and for adults from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Monday to Friday.

• The team at Hunter College’s Food Policy Center is putting information about free food in its Neighborhood Food Resource Guides.

The guides house a trove of local information — including where children and seniors can get free food, hours for local soup kitchens and hours for stores making deliveries — for neighborhoods all across the city. The information is updated by a group of volunteers making calls and gathering information constantly, according to Charles Platkin, the center’s executive director.

“What’s open? What’s closed? … Do you need I.D.?” he said. “The last thing you want is someone going out, taking a risk to go to a food pantry and be turned away because they don’t have I.D., if that was necessary. We’re double and triple checking.”

• Plentiful is an app created in collaboration with CityHarvest and the United Way that makes reservations at food pantries. The group works with about a third of all pantries in the city, according to Bryan Moran, Plentiful’s development director. He encourages anyone looking for free food to visit the website — which keeps an updated map of all pantry locations and hours — or simply text “FOOD” to the number 726-879 (PANTRY) for registration directions in nine languages.

The app’s reservation system was built to help food pantries manage their clients and waiting lines well before the coronavirus, he said. Now, the feature is coming in especially handy.

One large food pantry switched its reservations to five minutes for each client, instead of their previous 20-minute windows for up to 15 people, he said.

A Bed-Stuy grocery store was running low on some essential items like bread, March 17, 2020.
A Bed-Stuy grocery store was running low on some essential items like bread, March 17, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“They’re going to be open for a long range of time, but practice social distancing by giving everybody a five minute appointment window,” he said.

Moran has seen a huge uptick in app users. Usually, about 230 people register to use the app every month, he said. In the past 30 days, more than 1,500 people have signed up.

• This continually evolving resource list from the New York State Youth Leadership Council includes places to turn for food and other help — including housing, mental health and domestic violence issues. It prioritizes resources that are open to undocumented New Yorkers.

• Many more people may now be eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, or food stamps.

SNAP benefits help people with low income buy groceries through an electronic card that works kind of like an ATM card. SNAP benefits are accepted at most grocery stores, and can now be used to grocery shop online at ShopRite, Amazon and Walmart.

The rules around SNAP have been changing as the coronavirus crisis continues. The city’s Human Resources Administration is keeping this page updated with the latest information about how to apply for and access benefits.

Even if you apply online, you have to complete an eligibility interview over the phone by calling (718) 762-7669, Monday through Friday, between 8:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.

If you are at least 60 years old and have a household income of less than $32,000, you can get help applying for SNAP over the phone by calling 311.

It could take 30 days or more for SNAP benefits to kick in, but some of the work requirements that limited how long certain people could receive them have been suspended.

If you’re already receiving SNAP, you will continue to. All recertification processes are suspended for now.

• A new coronavirus program called P-EBT (for Pandemic-Electronic Benefits Transfer) extends SNAP funds to families of students who receive free or reduced price school lunch.

If you already have an EBT card and receive SNAP benefits, the extra benefits of up to $420 per child will be added directly to your EBT account in two payments, one in early June and the other at the end of June.

Undocumented New Yorkers with children who receive free or reduced price lunch are also eligible for P-EBT. More information about the program can be found here.

If You Want to Help Those Who Need/Supply Food

• Donate to food banks.

Food banks, pantries and soup kitchens all over the city are hurting for funds.

David Greenfield, CEO of the Met Council, has seen an increase in demand unlike anything he and his colleagues at the 50-year-old Jewish charity agency have experienced before.

“It’s just an overwhelming tsunami of need,” he told THE CITY.

A $25 million allocation for emergency food aid including in the new state budget will help, he said. But more and more people need food — and costs for certain items are going up, particularly on fresh items like produce, chicken, milk and eggs.

“Our budgets have imploded,” he said.

• Support the city’s struggling food-service industry.

Many restaurant wholesalers are now selling their goods to the public and making residential deliveries. Eater New York has a guide to the businesses that have made that change.

And some restaurants are converting their operations to meal distribution, supported by donations. Among the donors:  Rethink, which is providing $40,000 to up to 30 New York restaurants to continue cooking for people who need free meals, and World Central Kitchen, based in The Bronx.

Deborah Miller Catering has transitioned their operation to preparing and delivering meals like these to hospital workers.
Deborah Miller Catering has transitioned their operation to preparing and delivering meals like these to hospital workers. Photo: Deborah Miller Catering

Lauren McGeough, co-owner of the Lower Manhattan caterer Deborah Miller Catering, has been busy shifting the company’s operation to delivering pre-cooked meals to hospital and emergency workers. So far, supported by private donations, the caterer has worked with Columbia-Presbyterian, Mt. Sinai, Beth Israel and others to make sure every shift is covered.

“The biggest challenge is making sure we’re connecting to the right people at the hospitals so that we’re meeting the need,” McGeough said. “One of the hospitals I spoke with is getting a lot of love during the day, but their overnight shifts are not getting a lot of attention.”

Staff makes the food in a commissary kitchen near Police Plaza, a location that makes delivering meals within Manhattan easier. The caterer has been operating in the city for 26 years, McGeough said.

“We’ve lived through 9/11. One of our kitchens got flooded in Hurricane Sandy. We’re a surviving business here,” she said. “We hope to come through this crisis, as well.”

For more ideas on how to help, check out these tips on supporting New York’s food system from the Food Policy Center.

Be Safe When Getting Groceries and Deliveries

Always check the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control on best practices for community-related exposure. As of April 2, the CDC recommended staying out of crowded places and, of course, maintaining six feet of distance between people in public.

This guide from The Atlantic addresses the ethical calculus of takeout (it’s complicated) and the likelihood of getting the virus from ordering in (low, but always wash your hands).

This guide from Vox tackles many questions about the safest way to grocery shop, from whether you should use disposable bags to when preparation turns into hoarding.

Many stores have been changing their hours to give senior citizens less-crowded hours to shop. NBC New York has a list of major chains in the city that have made the move. But experts are mixed on whether the idea will ultimately keep seniors safer, according to reporting by The Washington Post.

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