When Reverend John Udo-Ukon finishes closing the latch on a walk-in freezer inside the food pantry he runs in the South Bronx, he stops for a moment and looks around. Tall stacks of cans and dry goods are wrapped in plastic, obscuring the labels beneath. The high warehouse-style ceilings have few lights, lending the space a garage-like feel.
“We’re not just any small pantry. We run a big operation here,” Udo-Ukon said. It’s true, though the scale of the food pantry is not readily apparent from outside the building. At first glimpse, it’s difficult to find the entrance for Word of Life International, the local charity that Udo-Ukon founded with his wife, Felicia, in 2003 in the South Bronx near Hunts Point. That’s because the entrance to the parish on Westchester Avenue and Prospect Avenue is marked by only two wooden doors with glass paneling, the kind you usually find on a residential building, and next to a commercial beauty parlor and a McDonald’s with single-handlebar doors, they seem small and out of place. Beyond those doors, Udo-Ukon takes you to the back of the church and through another set of doors opening to what indeed looks like a massive warehouse. It’s in this space, which opens to the other side of the block on Westchester Avenue that the food pantry is.
It’s been a year since Udo-Ukon upgraded from his previous location to the current 15,000 square foot property. He said he pays about $12,000 in rent per month, with an additional $4-5,000 per month for electricity to power the refrigerators and freezers. It’s a huge upgrade, but in a neighborhood where the poverty rate hovers at more than 30 percent—the highest in the city, according to Census data—the demand remains high and resources are skim.
“Money,” is the immediate reply Udo-Ukon gives when asked what the charity needs most. “We have to struggle on our own,” he said. He explained that it’s a daily challenge to raise enough funds, even though he’s affiliated with larger food banks.
It’s a connection that’s both needed to operate the food pantry but also one that makes it difficult to raise more funds, he says. When donors are asked for donations, they sometimes state they’ve already donated to larger food banks, not realizing that the funds are not always redistributed in what Udo-Ukon considers a fair manner, he said. The need for local food pantries, he added, is consistently high.
And on a gloomy, Tuesday afternoon, it’s clear what he’s referring to: nearly 100 people have been waiting outside in a line for more than an hour, some more. It’s an assortment of men and women of different ages, dressed mostly in jeans, tennis shoes, hoodies, and the like. The majority of those in line have come prepared with industrial black garbage bags tucked inside blue, red and black vertical carts, though a select few opt for other makeshift dollies; one rolls a worn, grey suitcase. All are waiting to get some of the free food that about a dozen volunteers have organized a few yards away.
Boxes with large cabbage heads and bags of potatoes are stacked atop one another, along with onions the size of limes and a random assortment of lettuce heads and the occasional pasta containers.
For Daria Matos, it’s an hours-long event and one she’d rather do without. “If I was working, I wouldn’t be coming here,” she said.