The Plaza square is sandwiched between a renovated milk bottling plant, an Applebees, and the Billie Holiday Theatre in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Layered deck-like stairs lead up from the street to the tables and stages that lookout at famed Marcy Avenue and Fulton Street. On a sunny Wednesday in September, there was a long line of people, some Brooklynites, some just hungry New Yorkers. All waiting for hours, looking depressingly out of place in the Bedstuy Restoration Plaza square.
Many were elderly men and women, some with soft or strong accents, a reminder that they have called another country home. June Feddoes, 55, a nursing home worker who lives in the neighborhood was one of them. She was wearing a scarf on her head, orange scrubs, a face mask and a large Patagonia backpack.
“Places like this is very important for people like me, you know, single woman, single mother. It does always make a difference. I’ve been going to food pantry ever since I came to this country and didn’t have a green card,” said Feddoes, who moved to New York from Saint Vincent in the Caribbean when she was 15 years old.
Everybody got corn stalks, sweet potatoes, and other food items placed in their bags or shopping carts, before rounding the corner to other service tables at the food pantry organized by New York City Councilmember Robert Cornegy to feed the city’s hungry, especially the elderly who were isolated at home, seeking safety from the deadly virus.
The dual public health and economic crises, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, only exacerbated the suffering of the 1.4 million or so New York City residents in neighborhoods without easy access to healthy food. The most viscerally impacted were those like Feddoes — Black, brown, or immigrant, living in poorer neighborhoods — struggling to feed their families even with a full-time job in 2020.
Neighborhoods like these are found throughout the five boroughs. Activists, community organizers and civil society organizations that Amsterdam News spoke to painted a picture of desperate need for access to fresh foods in Northshore, Staten Island, as well as Bed-Stuy, Flatbush, and East New York neighborhoods in Brooklyn — all areas that were dealing with food insecurity before the pandemic.
Food shopping in general during the pandemic was hard. The mandated lockdown in March last year effectively shut down the little access to fresh food some people had to begin with.
Brooklyn native Sister Ellen Nelson, 60, grew up in Fort Greene’s public housing. Once a teenage mom, Nelson graduated and eventually became a transit worker. Now retired, and living in East New York, Nelson completely changed her diet and lifestyle after a COVID scare last year.
Nelson lost two of her friends in 2020 and was diagnosed with COVID from March into May. During the lockdown she prayed a lot, spent time with her pets for company, and connected virtually with her kids. She said she couldn’t breathe, had no sense of smell, and was losing weight. The COVID symptoms were severe enough to convince Nelson to become a vegetarian and start working out.
“Lord Jesus help me, I began to say,” said Nelson. “After a while things just calmed down in May. I was afraid to go out my door but began to go back outside a bit. Of course I washed my hands and stuff and I got vaccinated as soon as my turn.”
A rush to respond
NY FOOD 20/20, a collaborative food study of the COVID-19 crisis, noted that “disparities in nutrition” can be paired with racial and ethnic disparities because a “disproportionate” amount of Black and Brown communities experience poverty and food insecurity. There is also a serious issue with advertisements for unhealthy food and beverages that target Black and Latinx youth, as well as “the glut of highly-processed products in stores and lack of neighborhood access to healthy options.” This all can lead to a prevalence of diet- and health-related diseases in these communities, said the study.
The city rushed to start programs that delivered groceries to seniors through 311 and put grab-and-go meals in schools to reach New Yorkers and students in need.
Even as the pandemic forced officials to “quickly and aggressively” address the increase in food insecurity, “many City agencies struggled to adapt” according to the testimony of Charles Platkin, executive director at Hunter College’s NYC Food Policy Center, during a June 2021 public hearing of the city council general welfare committee.
Between April and July 2020, New York State and New York City Council passed over 30 pieces of legislation focused on emergency food programs or helping the restaurant industry, the food study reported.
Government-led food initiatives struggled to get an appropriate amount and variety of food out. There were complaints that food was “spoiled, unhealthy, or not culturally appropriate,” said Platkin.
Nelson said she called 311 for city food deliveries during that time but didn’t want the meat in the kosher boxes and said the vegetarian options didn’t look so “healthy.” Eventually, she began cooking for herself and going out to farmer’s markets.
“Yesterday, I did the 5K run for the first time in Brownsville. I’m 60 years old, I’m diabetic, I have two knee replacements, and I did the walk, and it was nice,” said Nelson, beaming with pride about the progress she’s making.
Generally speaking, a sizable number of city residents were battling adult obesity, diabetes, and hypertension, which put them at “high risk for hospitalization, and death, from COVID-19,” said the study.
The city also expanded the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits program that used health bucks and healthy bodegas to increase the availability of fresh foods. Health bucks are coupons that were part of SNAP that allowed residents to redeem $2 worth of either fresh fruits or vegetables at farmer’s markets for every $5 they spend on a food benefit card. Many farmers’ markets will accept SNAP/EBT, WIC, and senior coupons as well.
Bodegas, not known for having an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables, were encouraged to stock up on more. However, price gouging drove the prices up not just for hand sanitizer, face masks and disinfectant sprays but basic food staples, like eggs, bread, and milk. Major food suppliers and independent grocers were caught jacking up prices city and statewide.
The Office of the Attorney General Letitia James (OAG) said they received more than 7,000 complaints of excessive prices and issued more than 1,565 cease-and-desist orders to businesses.
“This is definitely a crisis we’re in, in the way all these prices are raised up in supermarkets as well as local bodegas. People are just hurting,” said Staten Island food advocate and community district leader Robert Perkins. “You name it there’s not one thing that didn’t go up.”
A lot left to be done
Major and minor food distribution organizations, food pantries, and soup kitchens were slammed by the increase in demand for food, which led to many closing at the beginning of the crisis. The food pantries and soup kitchens left open saw a significant increase in visitors, often resulting in long lines, said Platkin, the head of NYC Food Policy Center.
Churches, organizers, and local officials pulled together to help but many did not have the resources required to reach every resident amid the chaos and confusion of the pandemic, said Platkin.
“We’ve been able to do a meaningful job considering, but there is more that needs to be done. By no stretch of the imagination have we been able to do it all,” said Reverend Dr. Demetrius Carolina, who runs the First Central Baptist Church and the Central Family Life Center on Staten Island.
The city continued to grapple with the reality of lockdowns, civil unrest, protests, and a racial and criminal justice reckoning after the death of George Floyd in May 2020.
The need was simply overwhelming according to East New York native Jerome Nathaniel, the director of policy and government relations at City Harvest, a food rescue organization.
In February 2020, Nathaniel said City Harvest planned to deliver 70 million pounds of food over the course of the year, but they ended up giving out over 200 million pounds of food from March to August alone.
“I don’t think one organization, or one type of organization can do it. It would have to be food banks continuing to make sure people can eat tonight but also different organizations that touch on housing, medical, and child care,” said Nathaniel, “and then public policy can’t do it alone either.”
Nathaniel said the same neighborhoods that have limited access to food are the same ones that got hit the hardest by COVID, have high rents, inadequate wages, and less transportation, which is by “design” and structurally racist in some cases.
Cornegy said people couldn’t access good, healthy food because of quarantine and unemployment in Bedstuy. He said “cracking the code” on how to reach seniors in particular in the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) developments in his district was difficult.
“We started here on the plaza and then realized that there were people who were two blocks in proximity — that to them this was a whole different world,” said Cornegy about going mobile with the operation.
The nursing home Feddoes works at is located on Long Island, but she declined to say which one. She has to commute from Bedstuy, and sometimes gets to Long Island two hours early and comes home late at night. She has a daughter in California, a sister and niece in Brooklyn, and a mother back home in Saint Vincent that she sends money to. She said that she usually relies on overtime to help her pay all her bills, but that was not available last year.
Feddoes said she was grateful for the pantry when her money was cut in half.
Feddoes said she was a live-in caretaker prior to getting her green card, and then switched to nursing afterwards. She has never not had two jobs, she said, and if there was one job, it came with overtime. She worries a little about not being able to retire if she gets sick and is unable to work.
“This is not a place for people who are lazy or just sitting around, it’s for people that work and it makes a difference,” said Feddoes about the food pantry. On the food pantry line, she was delighted to get sweet potatoes and tuna that week. Laughing Feddoes, said that her favorite meal is seasoned tuna fish and sweet potato from the microwave.
In south Brooklyn, Waqiel Ahmed of the Pakistani American Youth Society partnered with Black Lives Matter Brooklyn Branch President Anthony Beckford to open a mobile food kitchen that served free, hot halal meals to residents.
Ahmed said that they were sending people that came to them in need to other places before they just decided to do something on their own. He said they started in one location with about 100 people and then expanded to five locations, serving about 1,100 families after a few months last year.
Together, Ahmed and Beckford fed parts of Crown Heights, Brighton Beach, Coney Island, Flatbush, Kensington, and Gravesend in Brooklyn. These neighborhoods are mostly Black and Caribbean and/or Orthodox Jewish, Muslim, and immigrant communities.
“There’s a lot of immigrant people, they lose jobs and they working like week to week paychecks. And, a lot of people by word of mouth called us and recommended us where to go,” said Ahmed.
Worker shortages at urban farms
In east Brooklyn, some urban farms that wanted to be part of the solution realized they could only do so much because of worker shortages.
Iyeshima Harris is the project director for East New York Farms!, located on a small block of Schenck Avenue tucked between Livonia and New Lots Avenues. They also have a community garden onsite at NYCHA’s Pink Houses public housing.
Harris said that the farm staff had to do most of the labor last season because most of the volunteers are seniors. Their usual growing season starts in April, and last year that was when the virus outbreak had hit its peak in the city. The farm usually grows crops requested by the surrounding Black, Asian, and Latino community. Depending on the season, they grow carrots, long beans, okra, bitter melon, herbs, tomatillos, malabar spinach, pimiento peppers, ghost peppers, and okazi leaves.
Last year, they had to end the growing season early, said Harris. “Most of the gardens were abandoned since seniors were impacted the most by COVID,” said Harris.
East New York organizer Keron Alleyne, who’s looking to run for New York State Assembly District 60, said that there are many community gardens in East New York but during the pandemic they tried to come together. He said that it was extremely difficult, but the community found a few people to deliver food and build out a “haphazard” network of farmers and gardeners.
Alleyne went on to work with the city’s community gardens in the parks department, or Greenthumb, to create a community garden advocacy group. The gardeners in the group, who are mostly elderly Black women, gathered together for a celebratory bbq in Highland Park this October.
Community gardener and chef Kelebohile Nkhereanye said that she soldiered on growing herbs and foods in her garden and gave them away to her neighbors last year.
She said other neighborhoods get to capitalize on their access and affordability, which makes it seem like people in East New York or elsewhere don’t want healthy, fresh food. She said that’s not true. Nkhereanye spoke about a “gap” in how the community perceives their own access to fresh foods.
“Some people don’t go to the farmer’s markets because they think it’s expensive or it’s for white people, and so there’s a gap in knowledge,” said Nkhereanye. “The structure in place is not designed to give us credit and let us know our food system.”
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here: bit.ly/amnews1