Justine Lugo arrives at East Side Glatt, a kosher grocery in the Lower East Side, every day at noon on a mission: to feed the hungry.
Lugo, 28, is the pandemic relief coordinator at the United Jewish Council, and her office is located around the corner from a storefront that has become an essential hub for food distribution in a neighborhood that has been devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We feed up to 250 people a day, five days a week, rain or shine,” said Lugo, who is among dozens of activists who are tackling Lower Manhattan’s worsening hunger crisis.
Over the past two months, thousands of small businesses in Lower Manhattan have closed, thrusting an untold number of people into economic precarity and food insecurity.
The Lower East Side is a diverse and densely populated working-class neighborhood of around 75,000 people. Many of those inhabitants have lived in New York for generations, and now find themselves suddenly unemployed and unable to put food on the table for their families.
I volunteer three days a week with other local activists to distribute 1,000 healthy meals per day. The menu changes daily, but often includes braised meatballs with whole grain pasta and mixed vegetables, or salmon with rice pilaf and steamed vegetables.
On a recent Tuesday, we served ancient Chinese grannies stacking meals on their walkers, Orthodox Jewish mothers with their young children in tow, essential city workers, and men who appeared furtive, but nevertheless grateful.
Dovid Frank, 34, is a shift supervisor at East Side Glatt. He collects and delivers about 50 meals per day for Orthodox families in the neighborhood. Frank told me he has set up a WhatsApp group for the neighborhood families to submit meal requests. Every day, he takes a photo of what’s on the menu and blasts it to the group, and they respond in turn with what they need for the day.
“Families have kids to feed, and not everyone is comfortable with coming to get food, so I do it for them, because I have a heart,” Frank said.
I was struck, as I handed out meals, by the realization that we’re in the midst of a citywide hunger crisis that reinforces the structural failures of our municipal, state, and federal government.
New York City had a food-insecure population of 1.1 million people even before we became the epicenter of the pandemic. Since then, more than 500,000 people have lost their jobs and are growing increasingly desperate. With no income, and mounting bills including rent, utilities, and health care, families are facing the prospect of bankruptcy, homelessness, hunger, or worse.
The recent protests demanding justice for George Floyd, who was murdered by four Minneapolis police officers last week, have exacerbated the tension and anxiety in a community already suffering from the impact of the pandemic. Black and brown communities have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19 and are now facing the most violent NYPD response to mass civil rights demonstrations in decades.
Yuh-Line Niou, who represents the Lower East Side and Chinatown of Manhattan in the New York State Assembly, has been on the front lines of leading the community response to the escalating crisis of hunger in her district. Niou has created a network of neighborhood food banks that are serving 5,000 freshly prepared meals a week to her constituents.
“In our communities here in lower Manhattan, we saw that needs were not being met,” Niou told me. “This prevented a lot of our community from getting the meals they needed.”
In late May, Niou recruited me to help with daily food distribution at the East Side kosher grocery. I’ve been volunteering three times a week, and what I’ve realized is that New York is completely unprepared for a mass hunger event. I’ve also been hearing, in conversation with friends from activist circles, that many city-issued meals are disgusting and indigestible.
Moumita Ahmed, a candidate running for District Leader in Queens, recently tweeted photos depicting the deeply unappetizing fare reserved for seniors by the City of New York. These meals, delivered by the GetFoodNYC initiative, are inadequate, nutritionally deficient, and potentially pose a health risk to elderly people due to their high sugar content, among other toxins.
“Many of our seniors getting the free food […] were telling us that a lot of the food—applesauce, cookies, cereal, milk—was too sugary, and they had diabetes and other issues,” Niou said.
That’s why Niou’s volunteers have been serving nutritious meals of fish, chicken, beef, fresh vegetables, and whole grains, and will continue to do so until this crisis is over, she said. “Now we serve 1,000 meals per day at the Grand Street site, and hopefully this helps families who are all struggling right now get through this difficult time.”
New York City’s government is failing in the fight against hunger, and seniors in particular are most at risk. Earlier this week, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer sounded the alarm in a letter to food czar and Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, citing the poor-quality meals of low nutritional value being haphazardly distributed to the most vulnerable in New York City during this pandemic.
Trinh Eng, a 13-year resident of the Hillman Housing Coop in the Lower East Side picks up 30 meals a day from the food bank at East Side Glatt to bring to her neighbors.
“We didn’t know if we could help anyone or if we could make a difference, but we wanted to push ourselves to say ‘yes’ to anyone who might need a little extra help or support,” said Trinh, a 45-year-old account manager. “One neighbor told us that she had been at home for two months by herself and mainly eating bread and that she could use a hot meal.”
New Yorkers deserve better than this. We are the richest city in the richest country on Earth. And yet hundreds of thousands of our neighbors are going hungry, to the point where many of them are lining up in the middle of the day for what could be their only nutritious meal of the day. It’s inexcusable.
Now more than ever, New York City’s leadership needs to take the initiative to ensure that no one goes hungry during this time, and that nutritious meals are available to all city residents.