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PRESS MENTION: Food pantries dealing with post-Covid reality

Group of people sitting at a table during a panel discussion.

Jennifer Smith of Catholic Charities, second from right, discusses the struggles her group has had feeding the needy in the post-Covid era. Panelists also included Rob MacKay, left, of The Church-in-the-Gardens in Forest Hills, Sheila Clay of Citymeals on Wheels and Michelle Hernandez of GrowNYC among others. (Michael Gannon, Queens Chronicle)


September 21, 2023
By Michael Gannon

Hunger was known to be a problem in Queens even before Covid-19 made it worse. In the post-pandemic period, higher prices, changes in rules for benefit programs and the influx of immigrants from across the borders have been placing greater strains on family budgets, and on the food-relief agencies that have been stepping in to help them out.

The Church-in-the-Gardens in Forest Hills on Sept. 17 brought people from large citywide agencies to small church food pantries together in one room to work on getting the word out and increasing donations of food, funds and people power.

The Rev. Fred Weidmann, pastor at the church, said the gathering has a precedent in scripture.

“The only miracle that is written about in all four Gospels is the one that fed people,” Weidmann said, referring to Jesus’ feeding thousands with a few loaves of bread and two fish that a member of the crowd had.

“Jesus didn’t do it by himself,” he said to the audience. “People got together, they organized and got the job done.”

Rob MacKay of the Queens Economic Development Corp., the Queens Tourism Council and a member of the church, led a panel discussion and moderated a subsequent question-and-answer session.

Panelists included Sheila Clay of Citymeals on Wheels; Jennifer Smith of Catholic Charities; Michelle Hernandez of GrowNYC; Djeme Ndiaye with the Women, Infants & Children nutrition program at Jamaica Hospital Medical Center; Jonathan Forgash of Queens Together, which connects the borough’s restaurants and food industry with community members in need; and the Rev. Mike Lopez of MonkWorx of Ridgewood, which among other services operates a food pantry, and the Hungry Monk emergency food truck for the homeless.

State Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi (D-Forest Hills) also was on hand to exchange information.

Many in the audience of more than 70 people were from small local food pantries without the resources of major agencies, but who conversely can have greater demands as the needs in their communities increase.

Many of the organizations’ needs were summed up well by what Lopez called “the three Ts.”

“Time, talent and treasure,” he said.

Others said some regulations need to be more flexible, or re-examined.

Several pointed out that government food assistance will allow a family in need to buy junk food and soda, but not laundry detergent, soap or personal hygiene products, which are more necessary.

“We’re a food pantry, and people are asking us for detergent,” said Debbine Murray of the Zion Tabernacle food pantry in South Ozone Park. Smith of Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens said they have had to begin collections specifically for nonfood necessities.

Ndiaye said some regulations have the effect of wasting food and harming her WIC clients. One example she cited is the requirement in some cases to give new mothers large-sized containers of baby formula rather than multiple smaller ones; the large sizes, she said, can result in large quantities of formula being spoiled before it can be used.

She also said many of her recipients are placed in “no-cook” facilities, or ones that might have a single microwave for multiple residents in a shelter or hotel.

Lopez said some donations, though well-intentioned, can miss the mark. He referred to a recent large donation of snack cakes can be problematic for a population that can have problems with weight and obesity. He also believes that the city’s numerous ethnic communities should, whenever possible, have access to culturally appropriate food

A woman who works for the city’s Department of Education said she routinely sees vast quantities of food and milk thrown way if not given to students, as it is illegal to collect and redistribute it.

“Maybe rules [for schools] could be changed from what is delivered to schools to what should be delivered,” Forgash said, adding that other laws require some restaurants, and delis to throw perfectly good food away, while others of larger size can donate it to food relief agencies.

Hevesi said government has played a big role in alleviating some problems, but can be a roadblock in other instances. He said there is the ability through legislation.

“There hasn’t been the political will to fix the problem,” he said. While Hevesi said he is generally a supporter of Gov. Hochul, he disagrees with her reticence to increase taxes that could provide additional revenue.

Hevesi also said for small groups that need nonfood help with their operations, elected officials sometimes can be especially helpful if they get a funding request.

“Capital money can pay for infrastructure, equipment,” Hevesi said. “And every elected official at every level of government — city, state, federal — has access to capital money.”

Read the original story in the Queens Chronicle: Food pantries dealing with post-Covid reality