Early on the morning of Oct. 29, a handful of families huddled outside a West Harlem food pantry as wind and spitting rain swirled around them in advance of Hurricane Sandy’s arrival.
“They didn’t have money to prepare for the storm,” said Daryl Foriest, director of the Community Kitchen and Food Pantry of West Harlem.
Foriest had already been up since 4 a.m. that morning, picking up all 13 members of his staff and bringing them to the kitchen at the corner of West 166th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard because all public transportation had been shut down the night before in advance of the coming storm.
Within five minutes of Foriest arriving, the families were in the kitchen drying off, soaked from rain and crying.
“[They] had no food at home, nothing in the refrigerator,” said Foriest. “When they saw that we were open, the tears, the hugs. I had one little girl tell me that I was her hero.”
The Community Kitchen is one division of the Food Bank for New York City, one of the largest food banks in America. Since that Monday morning, the kitchen has given out 9,000 hot meals to clients. However, as demand rises for food services in the city in the wake of Sandy — from both regular clients and other New Yorkers who suddenly find themselves without food due to power outages or property destruction — food pantries and soup kitchens have been scrambling to fill the multiplying empty stomachs, often with a skeletal workforce and rapidly depleting food supplies.
To make matters worse, infrastructure damage continues to hamper operations. With the Food Bank’s main warehouse located in the South Bronx, they’ve only recently been able to truck supplies to food services into the other boroughs. They are still unable to reach some affected areas because of flooding.
With their headquarters in blacked-out lower Manhattan, their telecommunications network has also been knocked out since the Consolidated Edison transformer explosion in the area on Monday night.
Carol Schneider, associate director of media relations for the Food Bank, said the organization focused most of its services in the Bronx in the past few days.
She expects access to other boroughs will quickly improve, however.
“I think these are just a very difficult couple of days,” said Schneider.
Things are especially difficult for the Food Bank’s regular clients, she said, because some ran out of food stamps as Sandy arrived, a common issue at the end of the month for many New Yorkers on food stamps.
The hurricane heaped additional strain on food services as thousands of New Yorkers suffering from power outages and property damage joined regular clients in flocking to food pantries and soup kitchens across the city for sustenance.
“Many people may see a loss of income, so more people may be coming to us,” said Schneider.
Two food providers in lower Manhattan are also feeling the effects of the power outages and flooding on their doorstep.
The Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen on Ninth Avenue at 28th Street in Chelsea has been open every day this week, throughout the storm. The kitchen was also open in the aftermath of 9/11 and during the 2003 blackout.
Jess Quick, the volunteer and counselling services coordinator for Holy Apostles, said that, while many of their customers this week have been regulars, she’s also been noticing new people walking by and stopping for a plate of food.
“People without power and food are probably eating here more,” she said.
Holy Apostles is one of over 1,000 agencies city-wide that receive food from the Food Bank. Given the access issues, the kitchen is operating with severely limited food supplies.
Holy Apostles usually gives out 1,200 meals a day. On Wednesday they only managed to give out 550. They ran out of food in an hour. On Thursday, they were handing out a tuna sandwich with an apple and a cup of water.
“Everything was refrigerated,” said Quick. “We didn’t open any of that.”
The Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) Food Pantry, another Food Bank partner on West 33rd Street and 10th Avenue, has been open every day this week except Tuesday, when neither staff nor clients could make it in through Sandy.
On Monday, “Several clients came in from the Bronx,” said Janet Weinberg, GMHC’s chief operating officer. “They walked here. Several also came in from Brooklyn, and they also walked here.”
On Wednesday, when the pantry reopened, only a few dozen of the agency’s 163 regular staff could make it in. Weinstein said the agency only made urgent services available.
“We literally had someone from HR cooking in the kitchen, and we had someone from Communications serving lunch, and we had four board members coming in the last few days to help cook and serve. So it’s been all hands on deck,” she said.
The GMHC’s meal and food pantry programs building never lost power, so their refrigerated food was still usable. Still, Weinstein said they will soon run out.
“We have a very creative chef, so we’ll get through (Friday), but boy if we don’t get food Monday we’re in trouble,” said Weinberg, adding that they’ve already run out of bread, fresh produce and tilapia. Not being able to provide food next week could have serious medical ramifications for clients who need to take HIV medications with food, Weinberg noted.
Daryl Foriest said the Community Kitchen has managed thanks to an emergency management plan that provides for a five-day food supply. He has woken before dawn every day this week to pick up his employees and bring them to work.
“I told myself a long time ago that I’m not going to get in my own way of helping people, and if that means being tired and if that means leaving my family at home in the middle of a storm and coming to help families, that’s what we have to do,” he said.
“This is when New York needs you the most, is in the middle of a disaster,” Foriest said, “We don’t run out of burning buildings, we run into them. We don’t run away from storms, we run towards them to help people.”