Maria Rodriguez’s apartment sparkles; it’s a warm and peaceful home. Food from a nearby pantry helps Maria, a stroke survivor, care for her three school-age relatives while their parents work in the Dominican Republic. The children, Ysabella, Yocet, and Diana, set the table every night.
Each month, more than a thousand people collect groceries at this pantry, and the number keeps rising. The food distribution is a community service provided by Honor House, temporary housing for veterans in transition. Homes in this middle-class neighborhood sell in the $400,000 range.
Mae Tate is a hard-working seamstress in her sixties who was downsized several years ago. Now she works out of her apartment, day and night, seven days a week, but doesn’t earn enough to make ends meet. The cost of living in Bed-Stuy is now so high that Mae can’t afford to shop in the local supermarkets. The pantry bag helps. A one-bedroom apartment in this neighborhood now rents for about $2,000 per month.
The 2008 financial crisis rocked Paul McKay’s world. His thriving luxury renovation business in New Jersey was leveled and his marriage crumbled. So the Irish immigrant, born on a farm, dusted himself off and started over in Richmond Hill. Neither Paul nor his new wife, Judy, a nanny, are working in full-time positions. They struggle to support their fledgling family and have relied on local pantries when work is scarce.
Grandmothers are familiar faces on the pantry lines. Nora Balfour is 74 and a great-grandmother, but she still calls her husband “Lover” when he calls her after church. He’s in Jamaica, while she’s in the Bronx with her son, his wife, and their children, helping them keep the family together. Nora’s son is a security guard and his wife is a home health aid, both low-wage jobs with hours that vary wildly.
It was a long day for Gregory and Shamar, 12 and 14 years old. Along with their uncle Otto Starzman, the boys helped set up and break down two food pantries in two different boroughs since their alarm went off at 4:30 am. Each week, a typical pantry will distribute thousands of pounds of food to New Yorkers in need. Much of the heavy lifting is done by volunteers, many of whom depend on the pantries to feed their own families.
Dina Garcia is a 42-year-old mother of two little girls and a 26-year-old son with three children of his own. She’s resourceful and navigates a challenging life with upbeat resignation. She lives in the Bronx and works in a grocery store bakery on the Upper West Side. Meanwhile, the girls go to a charter school near her mother’s apartment on the Lower East Side. Dina, a life-long minimum-wage earner, visits pantries for groceries and sometimes goes to a soup kitchen that offers family dinners.
Patrick is 46 years old and disabled by AIDS. He was outed in the military, less than honorably discharged, and never completely regained his footing. He worked for Housing Works for years and lives alone in subsidized housing on Staten Island, a mile from where Eric Garner was killed. Patrick depends on food pantries to get by and can offer a remarkable accounting for his living expenses, balanced down to the penny.
Every day in New York City, thousands of people stand in line for hours, waiting for a bag of groceries at local food pantries. Originally conceived as an emergency ration, with staples for three meals for three days, a pantry visit is the new normal for families whose incomes can no longer keep pace with the cost of living.
On Saturday mornings, 4-year-old Brandon and his family make a four-mile round trip to collect food at two Queens food pantries. Running, laughing, and teasing his brother and cousins, he trails along in high spirits, sometimes catching a ride in the shopping cart.
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