Photo: Hannah Fullmer. The South Bronx Mobile Market on Morris Avenue.

No letup in demand for local pantries, soup kitchens

A line stretched halfway down Morris Ave. and halfway around 153rd St. at a recent food market, held bimonthly by City Harvest, a non-profit organization that redistributes food throughout New York City’s food pantries, soup kitchens and its own system of Mobile Markets.

Maria Cabezas, 66, came to get food for herself and her daughter, Tatiana, 35, who lives with her. It took her about 30 minutes to make it to the front of the line where a man dressed in a black hoodie clicked a counter in one hand before allowing her into the market area.

After she was through, Cabezas transferred the food, which included bags of onions, carrots and celery; packages of rice and oatmeal; and nearly a dozen cans of beans and soups into a leopard-print shopping trolley.

City Harvest has seen “an extreme increase in need” as a result of the pandemic, according to Josh Morden, the organization’s senior manager of Supply Chain Planning.

According to a recent City Harvest report, the organization distributed 56-million pounds of food across New York City from March to September of this year. It had originally planned to distribute 65-million pounds of food for its entire 2019-2020 fiscal year.

The organization’s two South Bronx Mobile Markets—Melrose and St. Mary’s—served on average 650 and 565 individuals, respectively, each month from March to September of last year. This year, average attendance skyrocketed to 970 and 1,000 individuals during the same time.

To manage the increased demand, the Mobile Markets have implemented a variety of changes in the name of efficiency, and safety. But as it enters its seventh month of increased distribution, the organization expected to see need decreasing, but no such relief is on the horizon.

Over the phone several weeks later, Maria said the food lasted for two weeks between herself and Tatiana, who occasionally translated some Spanish for her mother. They ate everything they received.

Tatiana said the food “helped out a lot, but we’re still missing things.” Maria called the items they received “the basics,” and wishes there was more fresh produce. 

“It would have been better to get a protein, which is expensive, but we were able to sustain ourselves,” Tatiana said.

Pre-pandemic, City Harvest primarily distributed fresh fruits and vegetables, but since March the organization has put more focus on shelf-stable pantry items. Other changes have included pre-packaging items into bags and boxes before they arrive on site, expanding hours and limiting numbers within the market.

Social distancing also means City Harvest is limiting volunteers.

Warren Davis, the Mobile Market manager, sometimes makes do with just two or three people to help the hundreds who come by. But Davis said the market must distribute food no matter the circumstance.

“Think of us like the post office. No matter the conditions—it’s still gotta happen,” he said.

Morden says, the organization was hoping to see a decrease in need by now. After Superstorm Sandy, food distribution returned to pre-emergency levels after 6 months.

“We really don’t see any end in sight,” he said.