Last Saturday afternoon Mike Hassan and Ellie Zoumberakis arrived at their Astoria café, Fresh Start Market, and began to unload 200 pounds of organic basmati rice, multicolored lentils, 2 cases of onions, and 100 pounds of potatoes and carrots. Their staff would have normally turned this food into healthy sandwiches and soups for their customers, but this time it was headed straight to the pantries of their fellow Queens residents in need.
The delivery was part of a unique three way transaction for the benefit of the hungry, a deal that might be described as a “win-win-win.” Zoumberakis and Hassan sold these pantry staples to Jonathan Forgash of the Astoria-based nonprofit Queens Together. A former restauranteur and 25-year catering veteran, Forgash has connected a borough-wide network of local restaurants and food pantries over the course of the pandemic.
He raised money through grassroots donations from Queens residents to pay Fresh Start Market for the food at wholesale rates. He also organized and scheduled the delivery to the GPK Foundation America, a Nepalese community organization in Woodside that hosts frequent food drives outside its headquarters. “This is our first time working with Queens Together,” said Zoumberakis, “but we hope to do more with them – they have good intentions.”
Forgash’s partnership with Fresh Start Market could not have come at a better time for the couple. They’ve managed to keep the lights on at Fresh Start Market throughout the pandemic, but the winter slowdown has been particularly hard for them and other local restaurants. According to the NYC Hospitality Alliance, restaurants and bars have lost more than 140,700 jobs in the past year, with 11,700 of those layoffs occuring in the last two months of 2020. “Restaurants and food businesses are the lifeblood and backbone of a community,” said Forgash. By purchasing the food rather than asking for donations, he points out, he can provide a lifeline for these Queens eateries while still managing to feed hungry families. “This way, everybody wins.”
By the time the Queens Together team made it to GPK’s headquarters at 1:30pm, more than 200 people had lined up outside on 69th Street and Woodside Avenue. They stood six feet apart and bundled up for the cold, eager to pick up the donations. GPK America president Somnath Ghimire had posted flyers in English and Nepali throughout the neighborhood and on his social media profiles several days before.
“Our people reach out to the community so they know just how much food can be served for how many families,” said Ghimire. “At our last drive, we had over 1000 people show up.” While this was the 33rd food distribution hosted by Ghimire and GPK, it was the first time they had worked with Queens Together and Fresh Start Market.
The Fresh Start Market team and Forgash quickly divided the individually packaged lentil bags and produce into family-sized meal kits, while Ghimire and his volunteers explained the pick-up process in Nepali to those in line.
The drive ran like a well-oiled machine, and by the event’s official start time of 2:00pm all of the meal kits had already been passed out. One attendee, Tul Kumari Thapa, subsequently sent Ghimire a picture of the homemade spiced yellow lentils she had cooked from the donations.
The three groups hope to run another drive in the future together, although no plans are set yet.