Feeding the Big Apple
The Food Bank for New York City delivers to 1,000 nonprofit organizations and schools — soup kitchens, senior centers, shelters and food pantries among them—and this year will provide more than 62 million meals to 1.5 million hungry mouths and bellies across all five boroughs. But the heart of the city’s major hunger-relief organization is in the Bronx, at their warehouse and distribution center in Hunts Point.
We toured the 90,000-square-foot facility on a recent morning and met some of the two dozen employees who keep things running smoothly. The spotlessly clean warehouse is lined nearly from floor to ceiling with pallet after pallet of canned, fresh and frozen foods (from staples like carrots, onions and rice to more site-specific foods).
Tucked into Hunts Point Cooperative Market, among warehouses for food brands like Tony’s Fish and Seafood and Westside Foods, the fact that this particular (not-for-profit) warehouse is different than its neighbors is not lost on any of its employees. Nor is the fact that the work done here helps feed nearly one in five New Yorkers.
“To know you’ve provided a meal for Thanksgiving to someone who needs it… that makes you feel really great,” says Daryl Gardner, director, Food Distribution Bronx. There have even been a couple of instances where needy families have come directly to the warehouse for food. While the warehouse employees aren’t able to give out food there, Gardner and his team have directed people to nearby food pantries the Food Bank works with. “That really hits you,” he says.
And some employees of the warehouse have felt hunger first hand. Jimmy Johnson, a warehouse specialist who lives in the Bronx and has worked at Food Bank for five years, told us he used to receive public assistance, so for him the importance of what they do there truly resonates. “We’re focused on the mission,” he says.
“We’re doing something for people, and we’re accomplishing something good,” adds Richard Santana, another warehouse specialist, who’s worked at Food Bank for six and a half years.
The warehouse is open Monday through Friday from 5am to around 8pm—sometimes later during the holidays, when three shifts operate. Some employees load the trucks (there are 17, eight of which are refrigerated); others are part of a “selection crew” that picks out the orders. The rest of the employees work on quality control, sifting through the donations to make sure everything’s up to the Food Bank’s high standard before it’s distributed city-wide.
“One rotten banana and you’re going to hear about it,” says Gardner.
It’s hard, often physically tiring, work but it’s fun, too. “We call each other brothers, not co-workers,” says Gardner. “And there’s a lot of joking around here, too.” The guys even do their very own NCAA-style bracket competitions, going head-to-head in an effort to be the most efficient at their jobs.
Once everything’s been checked and gathered by the staff, it’s time for the volunteers to take over. Every day, around 100 volunteers, in two groups of 50, fill the “repacking room,” where they sort and divide food by category (protein, grain, etc.) and into Food Bank–branded boxes that will soon be delivered throughout the city.
Volunteers include corporate groups, community groups and civic groups, says April McKenzie-Griswold, associate director, Corporate & Community Service at Food Bank.
“Once they’re there, and they understand the impact of their work, it’s always an incredible experience for them,” she says. “We like to give out lots of information about what they’re doing and who the food goes to. And, honestly, we couldn’t get this food out to those people without them.”
In keeping with the tone of the place, the repacking room is a lot of fun, too. “We have music, and the staff keeps everyone engaged,” she says.
How you can help:
The holidays are a busy time for the Food Bank. They get more food donations, and also need volunteers to help give them out. For December, they’ll need at least 3,200 volunteers, between their Bronx warehouse and their community kitchen and food pantry on West 116th Street. But don’t forget about January, either. In fact, the organization sees a major dip after the holidays. So, if you’d like to help, think beyond just December.
- Donate time: You can help by repacking food for distribution (at the Bronx warehouse), preparing and serving meals, stocking pantry shelves and more at Food Bank’s Community Kitchen. Sign up online via http://volunteer.foodbanknyc.org/.
- Donate money: For every $1 donated five meals can be provided to New Yorkers in need during the holidays and all year round. It’s easy to donate on the website as well.
- Donate food and non-perishables: Food Bank’s fleet of trucks can pick up your donation anywhere in New York City (for donations over 100 pounds). And it’s not just food: Food Bank also accepts items like diapers and sanitary napkins. For smaller donations, people are urged to donate to their local soup kitchen or food pantry.