Workers clad in gloves and masks are handing out thousands of free meals daily across the Bronx, at sites ranging from restaurants to NYCHA campuses, as the COVID-19 virus continues to sweep through New York City.
Shutdowns of stores and restaurants, combined with panic buying, have strained access to food everywhere, but the impact is especially felt in the South Bronx, where food access has traditionally been an issue.
In response, city agencies and local groups are stepping up to provide free food in locations across the Bronx.
Assemblyman Michael Blake, who represents the 79th Assembly district that includes Melrose, has partnered with the food relief nonprofit World Central Kitchen to provide meals across the Bronx during the pandemic.
Blake approached the nonprofit to start the initiative in the Bronx. He had already established a relationship with the organization through previous work in Puerto Rico.
On March 17, Blake and World Central Kitchen began handing out thousands of meals every day at multiple locations in the Bronx. By March 25, they were distributing over 10,000 meals a day at more than 40 locations throughout the Bronx.
World Central Kitchen is able to provide food by funding through donations from individuals, foundations and businesses. An updated list of distribution locations can be found every day on the organization’s website.
Blake said he has seen how much of an impact free food is making for Bronxites.
“I’ve seen tears of joy and tears of gratitude,” said Blake. “People saying they didn’t know how they were gonna eat today, they didn’t know how the situation was gonna be resolved.”
In 2019, New York City determined that 16% of the population in the Bronx was food insecure. Blake emphasized that the pandemic is hitting the Bronx harder than most other areas due to the level of poverty and food insecurity that already existed.
The food distribution has also afforded a bit of relief to some small businesses by providing some work for their employees.
Beatstro and the Bronx Drafthouse are two of three South Bronx restaurants owned by Alfredo Anguiera that are also serving as distribution locations for World Central Kitchen.
Jasmine Garcia, general manager of all three restaurants, said since the pandemic and the statewide shutdowns, 50% of employees across all three locations had to be laid off. The remaining half however, were able to remain employed through the distribution effort with World Central Kitchen.
Garcia said she’s seen parents come to the restaurants who didn’t know what they would feed their children. In those situations, she’s happy to help.
“Every day we’re gonna be here no matter what and we’re gonna have at least something for you guys to eat,” said Garcia.
There has also been a shift in efforts to provide senior centers with safe access to food. Suzanne Myklebust, deputy director of public affairs at the NYC Department for the Aging, said that senior centers began providing grab-and-go meals on March 15 in response to the worsening pandemic.
But as the crisis evolved, the Department for the Aging strategy had to change.
“To further enable vulnerable older adults to stay in their homes and have continued access to food, this week, senior centers across the City will be transitioning from providing grab-and-go meals to a direct delivery system,” said Myklebust in a statement.
In the Bronx, senior center food deliveries began on Monday.
School closures have also impacted food access. For many families, schools provide free meals their children rely upon. But with the closure of schools, many people don’t have enough food to go around.
In response, the NYC Department of Education has also started its own food distribution system. Three meals a day are available to all children across the city from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at more than 400 distribution sites. To find a site, families can use the DOE online lookup tool.
As COVID-19 cases in New York continue to rise, it appears that food relief efforts will need to continue. Blake said he will be distributing food with World Central Kitchen every day until this crisis is over.
“We’re going as long as we need,” said Blake. “Unfortunately this is not going away anytime soon so we need to be here to help for the duration.”