In a narrow gated stairway off of 109th street, people quietly stand in line. Everyone leaves at least a step in between each other on the staircase, which is lit dimly by an orange light on the building next door. “Stair C” reads the sign on the dark green door at the bottom of the stairs, where the smell of melted butter and toasted bread seems to originate.
This is the breakfast line for the New York Common Pantry.
Though its mission statement was once to help those in hunger in East Harlem, the Pantry has since expanded to help anyone in any of the five boroughs who needs some help. It began as the Yorkville Common Pantry in 1980 and expanded and moved to East Harlem six years later, as the number of people living above the poverty level dropped more than one-third between 1970 and 1980 in the Manhattan neighborhood. The number dropped another third once more between 1990 and 2000, showing the pantry was now where it needed to be.
“We go for a ‘whole-person approach,’ says Kelly Barkley, a department head at the Pantry. “If you’re hungry, our first step is to get you food, to make sure you’re fed. After that, we can connect you to a number of other resources like SNAP, Medicaid, Medicare. If you need to take a shower, if you need an address for your mail to be delivered, we’ll do that for you.” The Pantry’s programs range from hot meals to tax prep, and even psychiatric consultations. The organization seems to foster a sense of community, with many people chatting in groups at the entrance after eating and meeting with advisors.
People mill about in the lobby underneath paintings of sunny side up eggs and a carton of juice. A man excitedly announces “it’s my birthday!” and is met with applause from those near him.
“We’ve definitely grown in the last four years,” says Barkley. “We’ve grown to accommodate more people who can’t make ends meet, or who are transitioning. I see it sometimes when I’m downstairs-the people smiling, the kids eating. It’s filling a need.”