A Food Pantry Plans to Go Mobile

Customers pick up supplies from the food pantry at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger. (Seema Somshekar/ New York City Lens)

Customers pick up supplies from the food pantry at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger. (Seema Somshekar/ New York City Lens)

At the West Side Campaign Against Hunger, a food pantry, about 65 people waited Wednesday afternoon for the pantry to re-open after lunch. The pantry had already served 165 people earlier in the day. The waiting room was packed to capacity.

Despite the cold outside and the long wait, happy chatter filled the air. Pantry volunteers moved about talking to those who waited, while others restocked the pantry. In the midst of it all, Executive Director Stewart Desmond supervised to ensure that everything was functioning smoothly. After a quick conference with the kitchen staff, he invited the visitors to help themselves to some complimentary hot soup and salad. The appreciative crowd rose and made its way to the food table.

The busy scene is typical for the Upper West Side Campaign Against Hunger, which is one of 1,192 food pantries in the city. New York City has more food pantries than any other city in the nation; it’s also home to over 1.4 million, as of last year, according to New York City Coalition Against Hunger.

The growing demand for food is putting pressure on institutions like the Upper West food pantry to keep up. On average, the food pantry caters to as many as 300 people a day, and is open four days a week. But organizers at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger report that the pantry served 5 percent more meals last year, compared to the year before and incurred a 13 percent increase in food costs during the same period.  So the group has a new idea that might help ease the situation: put the pantry on wheels. A mobile food truck will start circulating by 2016, if the group can raise the money.

“To serve our growing clientele, we think a mobile pantry would be greatly helpful to reach more people,” said Hannah Lupien, the pantry’s policy director.

The idea isn’t an entirely new one. The River Fund New York food pantry in Richmond Hill, Queens, pioneered the concept in 1993. The organization has two trucks that visit locations in Queens and Coney Island, twice a month. “We scout the area for dead zones, where there are no food pantries or easy accessibility to one,” said Shirley Rice, Chief Operating Officer of the organization. Their mobile pantry serves over 800 people a month.

Not surprisingly many of the West Side Food Pantry’s customers love the idea since many come from as far away as Yonkers.  “Between my temporary jobs, I don’t have the time to come here sometimes,” said  Rose Merisier, 49, a single mother of three who lives in Brooklyn. “But, I still need the food. If a food truck came close to where I lived, that would be helpful.”

She added, however, that she hopes the food truck will maintain the same high standard that she has come to expect from the pantry. Pantry officials say she needn’t worry.

“We are not going to sacrifice the quality of our service to meet the quantity of people who are turning to us for help,” said Lupien. The team is figuring out what they will need in terms of storage space for the extra food, how they will serve it and and is working with vendors to devise the most suitable design.

The West Side food pantry looks a bit like a supermarket; customers are free to choose from the supplies that are displayed on the shelves. And Lupien is insistent about maintaining this model even within the confines of a food truck, as are some of the customers.

“I like the supermarket-style service. You can choose whatever you want, and that feels nice,” said Rosario Sandoval, 41, a Bronx resident. More typically, pantries give patrons pre-packed bags full of groceries.

Sandoval started coming to the pantry four months ago. “When you don’t have enough money to feed the family, this really helps,” she said. “They have good food choices and it’s healthy, so I don’t mind traveling the distance.” But a food truck will have some real advantages for people like her who come from far away. “There’ll be no waiting, no traveling, and it’ll be convenient,” she said.

About 60 percent of the Upper West Side pantry’s clients are from north Manhattan and 30 percent from the South Bronx. The mobile truck will have an even greater reach. Although the pantry has not yet set a fixed route map for the truck, the intent is to provide easy access to senior citizens and NYCHA developments that are located in remote places and are far away from subway stations. And instead of sidewalks or the street, the pantry plans to park the truck inside the premises so that people need not stand in long lines, but can wait their turn inside the buildings.

Esther Lopez is 72 and lives on the East 44th Street. She takes a bus to come to the pantry every month and has to carry the heavy bags back home on the bus. “It would be really convenient if it [the food truck] came to my neighborhood. I have severe back pain due to osteoporosis, so it would save me the stress of commute,” said Lopez.

The mobile truck initiative has its share of challenges, of course. Funds, for starters. The pantry currently has an annual operating budget of $2.5 million, most of which comes from donors and government grants. The mobile food pantry, with the extra cost of a truck, gas and employing a driver, will add to the pantry’s expenses.

The River Fund’s Rice admits the concept is not inexpensive. “Gas cost and maintenance of the vehicle is our number one expenditure,” said Rice. She also had some advice for the West Side food pantry. “Know the number of people you want to serve and determine your supplies,” she said. “You have to know your supply and demand. Depending on that you can have a nice sized, open backed truck.”

To help cover some of these costs, the West Side pantry has applied for money as part of the city’s $1 million participatory budgeting, a process where community members will decide how to spend part of the municipal budget.

Although, a decision is yet to be made through a public vote, the West Side Campaign Against Hunger’s Lupien is optimistic about the outcome. “We are pretty confident that we’ll have the funds to cover it,” she said.