An emergency food distribution program City Hall launched at the height of the coronavirus pandemic is undergoing dramatic cutbacks and a cap on the size of food orders — leaving pantries shorthanded without a warning or explanation, providers told THE CITY.
The program, run by the city Department of Social Services, is federally funded through COVID relief dollars that have a finite shelf life.
Pantry staffers and volunteers in Queens and The Bronx said they saw their shipments of mostly fresh fruits and vegetables reduced by anywhere from 30% to 80% earlier this month — at the same time as program personnel told them to make the smaller supply last for longer stretches.
At the nonprofit Masbia, which has two sites in Brooklyn and one in Queens that served a combined 1,500 families per day during peak pandemic demand, the cuts initially reduced the number of families served per day to 300, according to executive director Alexander Rapaport.
He said he’s since been able to ratchet up the food distribution, using private funds and other means, to about 900 families per day.
Rapaport says he first learned something was awry on Feb. 28, when the usual Driscoll Foods delivery trucks simply didn’t show up. The ordering system didn’t open for at least another week, according to Rapaport, and did so with a newly installed cap on orders that cut his supply by 80%.
“I could do five times the amount [of food] we’re doing today and still have people in line,” said Rapaport, who has been a staunch supporter of the program, known as P-FRED.
On Wednesday, his Queens site had no fruits or vegetables to distribute, and a walk-in fridge he said used to brim with produce had none.
“The difference between what we were able to get then and what we can still now get is so drastic that it’s still the same catastrophe,” he said
Nearby, at the Woodbine social hub in Ridgewood, Queens, a community meeting space, the all-volunteer staff was recently told that their weekly supply would have to last for a month going forward.
“It’s been dramatically cut back. We didn’t hear anything from the city or the mayor’s office regarding any pending cuts,” said one of the volunteers, Andrew Moore. “We do two distribution days a week, and for the first time since the pandemic started, we had really nothing to distribute one of those days.”
Retired factory worker Mariana Fernandez, 68, was the first in line outside Woodbine on Wednesday — where she waited four hours to receive food for her family, including her husband and two grandchildren. She had arrived at 6 a.m.
Also in line was Maria Cedeño, 43, of Ridgewood, who said she had been coming there every Monday and Wednesday for about a year — in part because her husband, a welder, had been out of work for six months during the pandemic.
She said particularly with recent increases in food prices, the estimated $50 in fresh goods she picks up at the pantry each week have immensely helped her family — which includes two daughters.
“In this time of pandemic, crisis, war — it helps a lot,” she said in Spanish.
Creativity Amid Crisis
The Pandemic Food Reserve Emergency Distribution Program, aka P-FRED, was initially conceived under former Mayor Bill de Blasio as the city’s first-ever reserve of emergency food.
The idea came together during the early months of the pandemic, when concerns about food distribution disruptions drove emergency measures to ensure a reliable supply to all New Yorkers.
However, city officials said later that year that job losses sparked by the pandemic shifted the program’s mission to instead serving as a food distribution hub — with an emphasis on delivering fresh fruits and vegetables to hundreds of overwhelmed food pantries.
The program was slated to be temporary from the outset — with an initial contract with Driscoll Foods that expired in June 2021. The Department of Social Services later extended it into this year, with a federally funded budget of $63.5 million that an agency spokesperson says is growing to $73.5 million.
At a hearing of the City Council General Welfare Committee on March 9, Social Services Commissioner Gary Jenkins said that he didn’t expect P-FRED to continue into the fiscal year that starts July 1.
The head of the program, Joe Jones, wrote in an email to providers on March 18 that he’ll be stepping down at the end of this month — three months before it’s likely to expire.
Mayor Eric Adams and other city officials have said they’re looking to add fresh fruits and vegetables to an existing, decades-old program — the Emergency Food Assistance Program (EFAP) — that has historically distributed non-perishable food. A contract for that work has yet to be awarded.
Jenkins also said the administration would seek to enroll city residents in the federally funded food stamps program, known as SNAP.
General Welfare Committee Chair Diana Ayala questioned at the hearing why the city hadn’t boosted funding for EFAP in the mayor’s preliminary budget for fiscal year 2023, given the pandemic program’s pending elimination.
“I just don’t see a world where we’re not going to have an additional need for resources, especially considering the high cost of fresh foods,” said Ayala, whose Council district includes East Harlem and the South Bronx.
Jenkins would only say that the agency is monitoring food use at pantries and soup kitchens, and that his agency would talk to the Office of Management and Budget if additional funding is needed.
“P-FRED was really established at the height of the pandemic,” he said. “We see New Yorkers are rebounding and getting back to work and getting into the jobs that they so deserve to be in as far as being part of the workforce.”
He didn’t directly answer when Ayala asked whether fewer people are using pantries than earlier in the pandemic, and his agency didn’t respond to requests for data showing a reduced need for supplemental food.
“I worry that if we’re reducing or eliminating the program without any real data that supports the need to reduce it, that we’re doing communities like mine a huge disservice because the need is higher than I’ve ever seen,” Ayala said at the hearing.
Recent employment numbers show the city has not rebounded from pandemic-sparked job losses as quickly as other parts of the country. The local unemployment rate, at 7.6%, is nearly double the national average.
Emergency food providers said the employment numbers, combined with inflation and the return of higher rents, have kept the need for supplemental food distribution going.
“I still believe that there is a need, and I’m not sure if that need will really go down,” said Marianne Sheridan, COVID relief coordinator at the Mercy Center in The Bronx.
The site, where Adams signed two executive orders related to fresh produce last month, has been distributing food to at least 300 families per month, according to Sheridan.
But March’s allotment was at least one-third smaller than previously, she said, and the nonprofit isn’t eligible to submit a new order for produce until May. That means no food from the program will be distributed in April.
Department of Social Services spokesperson Julia Savel didn’t respond when asked for an explanation for the reduction in deliveries to food pantries following the implementation of the cap.
“We are evaluating shifting needs and funding options through the budget process, and look forward to engaging with our partners at the state and federal levels to ensure these institutions have resources to continue serving New Yorkers in need,” she said in a statement.
But a Human Resources Administration email from early March passed along by a volunteer at Woodbine attributes issues with food distribution to “a spike in demand and in food prices in recent months.”
A separate HRA email forwarded by the volunteer acknowledges the decreased size of deliveries.
“We understand that these allocations are much lower than very recent PFRED demand, but we are pleased that we were able to work within our budget to ensure we can continue to provide some supplemental produce until our new EFAP contracts are in place,” the email reads.