On the Frontlines: Fighting Hunger in a Pandemic

A staff member prepares items for pantry bags at Bread and Life’s food pantry / Photo Courtesy of St. John’s Bread and Life

On a normal day, the large and brightly lit cafeteria at St. John’s Bread and Life bustles with people, who sit at round tables and enjoy their freshly cooked meals. At breakfast, there might be scrambled eggs, bacon and pancakes, and at lunchtime, chicken and fries. But these are not normal days. Over the past few weeks, the only signs of life at the Brooklyn soup kitchen have been the dedicated staff members as they cook and package the meals for pick-up.

St. John’s Bread and Life is just one of the few food pantries and soup kitchens left open in New York City. Nearly one-third of all food pantries in the city have closed as they struggled to feed the growing number of unemployed New Yorkers during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Jewish nonprofit Met Council, which provides food and social services for the poor.

“The situation for New York City food pantries is critical and on the verge of disaster—we could be only days away from the collapse of the food pantry system,” Met Council CEO David Greenfield said in a statement this weekend.

Despite the grim outlook, the staff members at St. John’s Bread and Life are determined to continue their mission to serve New Yorkers in need.

Founded in 1982, the charity works to fight hunger and poverty in Brooklyn and Queens by providing food and other services like medical care and legal counseling. While it first began handing out simple sandwiches and coffee during the AIDS epidemic, Bread and Life eventually expanded to a full soup kitchen, as well as five mobile soup kitchens in vans, serving 906,000 meals a year. In addition, around 100 to 200 people typically “shop” for groceries using points at their digital food pantry.

Their clients include seniors, working poor families, the homeless, and those with mental or behavioral health issues. “We don’t ask any questions. We accept them all,” remarked Sister Caroline Tweedy, executive director of Bread and Life.

As the coronavirus outbreak worsened in New York, Bread and Life was forced to curtail or fully suspend some of its services, like its mobile soup kitchens, out of health precautions. Instead of the cafeteria-style soup kitchen, breakfast and lunch are now restricted as to-go options, which those in need can pick up at the service entrance at specifically designated times.

“That intimacy, that community, the way they felt safe in the kitchen—now they don’t have that. Now they’re out on the streets,” said Mildred Gutierrez, a senior case manager who has been working at Bread and Life for 17 years.

Gutierrez estimates that 300 to 500 new clients have sought out Bread and Life since the coronavirus outbreak, in addition to their hundreds of regulars. To meet the heightened need, the 32 staff members at the charity—the oldest of which is 78 years old, according to Gutierrez—have stepped in to fill the vacancies left by volunteers, preparing pantry bags and cooking hot meals in addition to their regular case work. Volunteers are no longer accepted at the soup kitchen and pantry, at least temporarily, out of fear of possible spread of the virus.

The staff are taking the necessary precautions against possible contagion. Gloves and masks have become part of their uniform, and hand sanitizer part of their daily routine. Gutierrez also checks her temperature every morning to ensure she’s safe to go to work.

Gutierrez remarked that the situation is worse than it was during Hurricane Sandy, the last major crisis that struck New York. The difference, she says, is that they didn’t have to close, and people weren’t barred from entering due to social distancing regulations. “At least they had a safe haven to come home to, but now they’re left out in the streets,” Gutierrez said.

Bread and Life is actively working with other organizations like Food Bank for New York City and City Harvest to keep the food pantries running. But it is unclear how long they can sustain their services. Sister Caroline fears the possibility of the supply chain drying up, especially since they get food donations from local providers like Three Guys and Catania Bakery. This, in turn, would force them to use up more money that they haven’t budgeted for.

“Whether it will continue a week from now, or two weeks from now, is anybody’s guess,” she said. “And I think we’re all in the same boat trying to figure that out.”

Sister Caroline says the government can provide crucial assistance. “They can donate more money or food. Because we don’t know how long this is going to last, and the main focus for us now is for our clients to have food.”

For now, the staff members are determined to keep feeding New Yorkers in need. “We have to do what we got to do,” said Gutierrez.