Last Wednesday, dozens of representatives from groups like Queens Together, Sunnyside Community Services, BlaQue Resource Network and Astoria Welfare Society rallied outside Woodside Houses to shed light on the issue of food insecurity.
Jonathan Forgash, an Astoria resident and former chef, co-founded Queens Together at the start of the pandemic as a way to address hunger among neighbors and support local restaurants that were struggling to stay open.
As executive director, Forgash and co-founder Jaime-Faye Bean raised money to pay restaurants to help feed people across the borough. They created a food pantry and teamed up with other volunteers to distribute food.
“We couldn’t just sit by, we had to do something,” he said. “I could see the food lines forming.”
In September, Queens Together’s food pantry at the Variety Boys and Girls Club of Queens was winding down. Forgash said he started to get calls from regulars asking when the food might return.
“People were getting nervous,” he said. “Those were some tough calls.”
Two weeks ago, Forgash got a call from a man who had been calling him every week since the food pantry shut down. The former chef said the caller’s voice was shaky as he spoke about trying to feed his kids.
“Hearing another dad share like that is gut-wrenching and leaves you kind of hollow,” Forgash said.
According to the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy, more than two million New Yorkers are struggling to put food on the table. Many of them are seniors who are served by longtime community groups like Sunnyside Community Services (SCS).
Judy Zangwill, the organization’s executive director, noted that when the pandemic hit in mid-March, SCS received 1,000 calls from people who were stressed and fearful about where their next meal would come from.
Prior to the pandemic, Sunnyside Community Services fed roughly 200 seniors a day for five days a week.
Zangwill said the organization quickly pivoted, increasing the number of days they opened their food pantry. They helped people access the city’s food distribution system, and gave out more than a half-million dollars in cash assistance.
According to Zangwill, more than 500 people are still on the waiting list for that assistance.
“Not only are people dealing with where their next meal is coming from, but as we know, they are dealing with loss, jobs and businesses deciminated, and isolation,” she said. “While the resources and funds continue to diminish, the need for sustenance has not.”
The nonprofit leader said she still sees lines for food banks extending blocks. She noted that some immigrants have limited access to government programs like SNAP.
“We call on our leaders to make sure there is increased funding so no one has to worry about how they will put food on the table,” she said, “on top of all of the other stresses COVID-19 has brought to our neighbors, friends and family.”
On October 23, the U.S. Department of Agriculture authorized $500 million for a fourth round of purchases for its USDA Farmers-to-Families Food Box Program, which has been supplying produce, dairy and meat to hard-hit communities.
The funding means food box deliveries will continue through the end of the year, allaying concerns that the program would cease at the end of October.
In September, however, the USDA changed the program by altering which boroughs can be served by specific vendors. Lawmakers noted that as a result of that change, food pantries in Queens were left without vendors or guidance on who they could contact to supply food.
Several organizations at the Woodside rally urged participants to think about growing their own food as an option.
“Let’s take more direct action to provide more food for our communities,” said Suga Ray, CEO and content creator for Queensbridge Studios. “Not be dependent on the system, but to point us to action.”
Dianna Rose, director of food justice and sustainability with the BlaQue Resource Network, said communities need to understand not only how they’re receiving food or where to get it, but understand the culture of food.
“There has to be an understanding and a cultivation, and a re-falling in love with food coming from the earth as an indigenous practice,” she said. “We need to think about sustainable solutions to food in our community.”