New York City food pantries are low on money and need volunteers

BY , | NEW YORK DAILY NEWS | Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Marovna Bowen, 46, stops at a Brooklyn food pantry on Tuesday. Bowen said she come to the pantry once a month (Photo: Corey Sipkin/New York Daily News)

New York City’s food pantries are abundant in heart, but short on resources, according to a report released Wednesday.

Through a network of nearly 1,000 charities and schools throughout the five boroughs, the Food Bank For New York City manages to provide 64 million free meals a year around the five boroughs — but now the volunteer-driven system is showing signs of wear-and-tear itself.

The average city food pantry serves 1,800 clients a month — with 52% operating on a budget of less than $25,000 a year.


A third of them, 31%, have annual operating budgets of less than $10,000, according to the latest report from Food Bank for New York City.

“We’re relying on a greying population of volunteers who give endlessly,” Food Bank CEO and president Margarette Purvis told the Daily News.

“Many of them are African-American or West Indian women who had a front row seat to the want and need in their communities, and they decided to do something about it,” Purvis added.

Tamara Dawson manages the busy Bed-Stuy food pantry, where the need is particularly acute among black families (Photo: Corey Sipkin/New York Daily News)

Among those is Rev. Melony Samuels, who for 17 years has worked at the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger.


She’s an urban farming pioneer, with a community garden that helps stock the pantry.

But there’s never enough to match the need, Samuels said.

“Pantries have to ration, we have to say, ‘You can’t have a rice and a pasta, you can have either or,’” said Samuels. “And sometimes it’s not at all.”

At the busy Bed-Stuy food pantry on Tuesday, manager Tamara Dawson kept an eye on supplies as a rush of familiar faces waited patiently in line.

Winsome Stoner assists Marovna Bowen with the items she’s chosen from the food pantry (Photo: Corey Sipkin/New York Daily News)

Need is particularly acute among black families, stats show.

In 2012, 50% of the city’s pantry clients were African-American, Food Bank said. Overall, black families are twice as likely to be food insecure as white families, and Brooklyn has the highest percentage — 62% — of black emergency food program participants.

“I come here about once a month,” said Marovna Bowen, 46, a home health aide from Brooklyn.

Even working 40 hours a week, her salary doesn’t feed her kids.

“With the rent, I can’t afford to buy enough food, so I have to come here,” Bowen said.

Denise Bonds, also from Brooklyn, said she’s been coming to the pantry for two years.

Denise Bonds, 50, said she’s been coming to the food pantry for two years (Photo: Corey Sipkin/New York Daily News)

“Even with food stamps, what I can afford doesn’t stretch, so I have to go to pantries to survive,” said the unemployed 50-year-old.

“I come once a week for the fresh vegetables, and once a month for staples,” she said.

Fifty-two percent of the city’s cash-strapped charity food pantries are completely volunteer-run, Purvis said.

One in five, 19%, rely on part-time volunteers to operate.

Nearly half, 48%, don’t have reliable access to computers.

The gaps are particularly worrisome given that in April, single able-bodied adults without kids who have been unemployed since the start of 2016 will be denied SNAP benefits — regardless of their ability to buy food.

New Yorkers stand in line at the food pantry. A lack of resources and volunteers has made it difficult for pantries to operate (Photo: Corey Sipkin/New York Daily News)

That additional strain worries Purvis.

“The people who work in these charities are my definition of heroes — they do amazing work, with so little,” she said.

Recently, the Food Bank For New York City moved to address some of the long-standing challenges faced by some of their food pantry partners.

The first problem was getting past the technological divide. Since the Food Bank doles out its free food via an online ordering system, any pantry that wasn’t online had an automatic disadvantage.

“We found that people were having grandkids order for them or waiting until they got home because they couldn’t do it from the pantry — all kinds of creative solutions,” said Purvis.

So the Food Bank For New York City sent out 100 laptops, all loaded with the software and databases the pantries would need to order food and track supplies.

City food pantries are in dire need of fresh volunteers (Photo: Corey Sipkin/New York Daily News)

Then they sent out volunteers to help the workers learn how to use the technology.

With the new laptops, the pantries were able to expand their tax-filing services for clients, Purvis said.

“We have a team of really high-qualified accountants and bankers in Manhattan who want to help, part of corporate partnerships,” she said.

Now, pantry clients can upload their personal information on a secure server to a volunteer accountant, who fill it out and file for their tax refund, Purvis said.

“We did $85 million two years ago, and $144 million last year, and hope to do even more this tax season,” the CEO said.

“We were able to get people refunds as large as $2,000, which can really make a difference to people who are in great need,” she said.

No matter the challenges, the Food Bank For New York City and its network of volunteer charities will persevere, Purvis said.

But they’re in dire need of a fresh crop of volunteers, she added.

“We aren’t seeing our second wave, and that’s worrisome, because so many now are seniors,” she said.

She encouraged anyone interested in volunteering to go online to and fill out the application.

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