Boxed food piled in lobbies. Meals left rotting in courtyards. Stolen deliveries.
Those are some of the complaints that clients of the city’s Emergency Food Distribution program have made to their elected officials, NYCHA and 311. The meals are meant for the city’s elderly, homebound and others in need during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It makes you feel second class, you just feel disrespected,” said Tawana Myers, who lives in the Linden Houses in East New York, Brooklyn, and receives groceries through the program.
Her delivery on Friday included rotten carrots and sweet potatoes: “No dignity, no respect,” she said.
The situation seems especially dire for those who live in public housing, where dozens of residents in a single building may receive the city-provided food, according to Councilmember Carlina Rivera (D-Manhattan) who told THE CITY she has received “numerous complaints” from her Lower East Side constituents.
Some one million meals a day are delivered by 18,000 drivers of taxis, livery cabs and other for-hire vehicles — many of whom have suffered a financial blow because of the lockdown — through the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission’s “DeliveryTLC” program. Overall, 22 million meals have been delivered since the program launched nine weeks ago.
Since food is delivered in boxes without addressee labels or identification other than “from the City of New York,” the items often sit abandoned in lobbies or curbside for hours before they’re discovered, according to clients.
Drivers, in turn, describe waiting for hours at distribution centers for what can amount to very little pay. The program pays drivers $53 per six-stop route, not by the hour. Drivers are assigned a maximum of three routes per day, or 18 food deliveries.
Some say they are still owed back wages for work completed weeks ago.
An ‘Unacceptable’ Waste
Clients of the meal delivery program say the service is uneven.
Myers, who has breathing issues and is recovering from surgery, had to get respiratory treatment in her apartment after rushing downstairs to pick up her groceries on Friday.
Most of the time, she said, deliveries are left at her front door without warning.
“I’ve opened my door and the food’s been sitting in the hallways for who knows how long,” she said.
Lilah Mejía, who lives on the Lower East Side, has been posting photos of abandoned food outside residential buildings, primarily public housing, on social media and tagging elected officials.
Happy Memorial Day from @nycemergencymgt & @BasketballCity at 72 Baruch Drive this morning. Why do they continue to treat us @NYCHA residents as trash. that AINT RIGHT @JumaaneWilliams @CarlinaRivera @yuhline @HarveyforNY @NydiaVelazquez pic.twitter.com/C4stxu0ZZa— Lilah Mejia (@motherLeeEarth7) May 25, 2020
“Numerous folks have addressed it but nothing has been resolved from it,” she said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Sanitation, whose commissioner, Kathryn Garcia, serves as the city’s COVID-19 “Food Czar,” said that critical meals going to waste is “unacceptable.”
“Deliveries are not considered complete unless they go to the doors,” agency spokesperson Joshua Goodman told THE CITY in a statement. “TLC staff are informing every single driver, every single day, at all distribution sites, that they must get food to the door of the recipient, and not leave it in lobbies, as well as providing instructions on what to do if a door is inaccessible.”
Camille Napoleon, a resident of the Baruch Houses, became so fed up with the piles of hot meals in the lobby of her Lower East Side building that she began distributing the food herself.
“Within a matter of hours the smell was unbelievable because you have perishables thrown in the lobby, and then NYCHA comes the next day and it’s all removed and thrown in the garbage,” she said.
“It has to stop, it’s such a waste of food during a pandemic when you have thousands who need it. It’s unacceptable.”
Drivers Stretched Thin
Union officials who represent drivers said the cabbies also have some problems with the program.
“Overall, we support the program, and we anticipate and support an expansion,” said Bhairavi Desai, president of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. “It makes sense for the city to hire taxi and for-hire drivers for this work, but just some of these issues need to be addressed.”
The union is asking the Taxi and Limousine Commission to streamline the direct deposit payment system for drivers, and to provide additional personal protective equipment for all workers, who receive a mask and a pair of gloves a day. The TLC, Desai noted, has been responsive to concerns so far.
Arthur B., who asked that his last name be withheld, worked for the program for two days in early May before giving up.
On his last day, he waited for five hours at a Brownsville distribution center only to be assigned one route, which took another two hours to deliver, he said. That means that for a full day’s work, he earned just $53, or less than $8 an hour. He still hasn’t gotten paid.
“I hate to criticize these guys but you got drivers losing 80% of their business but then waiting all that time for what amounts to about six bucks an hour,” he said. “That’s bad.”
Goodman said the city is implementing a new app for drivers to sign up for shifts in advance to prevent long wait-times at the distribution centers. The system was in place at five of the city’s 11 food distribution centers as of Monday and “should be in the rest in the next two weeks.”
He denied there were delays in payments for drivers. “Drivers are paid weekly via direct deposit or mailed check, and any driver who has questions as well as any home delivery recipient who may have concerns about the emergency food they receive can let us know at nyc.gov/GetFoodHelp or via 311,” he added.
Arthur wasn’t surprised to hear that clients were having issues with the deliveries.
Though each driver receives a “route sheet” with each client’s name, address and contact information, he said some don’t answer the phone or the door or ask that the food be left in the lobby.
Arthur said he “always made the effort” to call clients to let him know he was on the way, but acknowledged fearing for his safety — and that of clients — on the job.
“They did give us the gloves and [personal protective equipment] but there’s still a risk,” he said, noting that most clients were elderly and live alone. “How many people do I have to come in contact with before I get the virus?”