Bronx Fire Survivors Say City Hall’s New Meal Provider Adds Insult to Injury
Twin Parks tenants now living in hotels had been getting hot meals delivered by the distinguished World Central Kitchen. But when that organization pivoted to Ukraine, a group run by a mayoral pal stepped in.
Bronx tenants left homeless by the Twin Parks fire in January say they’ve received subpar food from a new meals provider chosen by the mayor after previous supplier World Central Kitchen, run by celebrity Chef José Andrés, shifted focus to relief in Ukraine.
“The food is atrocious. I mean, I don’t even call it food, I call it dog food,” said Joseph Brannigan, 61, a retired nurse who was rescued by firefighters in the deadly Jan. 9 blaze and is now living in a nearby hotel alongside other neighbors.
Others from the building say the new meal suppliers don’t respect their diverse cultural and religious backgrounds. All 17 people killed in the fire were given a traditional Islamic funeral in mid-January.
Tenants say the food is no longer properly labeled so it’s difficult to determine what is halal or vegetarian, and packages are left strewn on the ground.
“We didn’t know how or when it got here, what’s in it, if it’s refrigerated,” said Ariadna Phillips, of South Bronx Mutual Aid, which has been helping victims of the fire.
The organization picked by City Hall to step in with meal delivery is run by disbarred lawyer Arelia Taveras, who earlier this year secured Mayor Eric Adams’ personal support for a restaurant fighting with the State Liquor Authority.
The food from Taveras’ NYS Latino Restaurant, Bar & Lounge Association began arriving on Saturday, “unlabeled, unmarked, in U-Haul boxes with no prep date” or notice of whether it is halal, left in piles in the hotel lobbies where the tenants are staying, said Phillips.
She noted unlabeled food is a potential hazard, especially for tenants like Brannigan, who has strict dietary restrictions stemming from his cancer diagnosis and treatment.
“I’ll look at the box and not know what’s in the food,” Brannigan told THE CITY. “I can’t eat that.” He said he sometimes goes hungry.
On Wednesday, the association dropped off a meal he described as “a brown long thing” at the Webster Avenue hotel where he is staying. “It looked like this creature, and it looked disgusting and it smelled horrible. I wouldn’t even eat it.”
Brannigan said the experience is night and day compared to the meals from World Central Kitchen.
“They were a wonderful organization. They brought utensils every day, the food was delicious, it was wholesome, it was healthy,” and every day the food was labeled as veggie or halal, he said.
“I was sad when they left,” he added.
Accounting for Taste
Ivette Davila-Richards, a spokesperson for the mayor, said the NYS Latino Restaurant, Bar & Lounge Association was one of the organizations initially subcontracted by World Central Kitchen to deliver food in January and February, and insisted all food has been labeled as halal or vegetarian for the building’s diverse residents.
City Hall disputed that food was left on the floor, and blamed any unlabeled food on other organizations that were leaving food.
In a statement Friday evening, association founder Elvis Silverio said the unlabeled meals did not come from them: “Unfortunately, there were additional meals being provided from another food provider at the hotel locations which were not branded, nor a part of the association and were mistaken for our restaurant meals.”
The change in food distribution began when World Central Kitchen’s work with the city ended on Feb. 28 and the group shifted focus to Europe, leaving the tenants in hotels without anyone to deliver them hot meals in the meantime. It was then grassroots groups like Ghetto Gastro, Gambian Youth Organization and South Bronx Mutual Aid who voluntarily delivered food, Phillips said.
She pushed back on the City Hall claim that non-labeled food had been left by other organizations.
“Those excess meals were absolutely theirs,” said Phillips. “We informed tenants of meal contents, delivery time and date. We removed excess meals. We stopped [our own] delivery when they claimed they were starting service.”
The group began sounding the alarm to the Bronx borough president’s office last week, first about the gap in service when World Kitchen pulled out, then about the unlabeled meals that showed up a few days later.
In an email to the office on March 3, South Bronx Mutual Aid urged the BP to bring in a new vendor as soon as possible and said the group and others had stepped up in the meantime.
Three days later, the group wrote again to Borough President Vanessa Gibson’s office, this time about unlabeled meals that mysteriously started appearing on Saturday. They turned out to be from the NYS Latino Restaurant, Bar & Lounge Association.
Bronx BP spokesperson Michael Ivory said the office was “grateful” for the groups who kept tenants fed last week while official food services were being confirmed.
“Our team along with the Mayor’s office are working to ensure there are no gaps in services and that the needs of the residents are being met,” Ivory said in a statement. “We are also closely monitoring the situation.”
Financing for the meals comes from The Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York, a nonprofit entity within City Hall that facilitates public-private partnerships for charitable purposes.
“The Mayor’s Fund is assessing the amount of meals being eaten on a daily basis to determine if numbers need to be increased or decreased,” Davila-Richards said.
The complaints about food come as Twin Parks tenants are also criticizing the city for so far only distributing a small fraction of money raised on their behalf, Documented NY reported.
The Mayor’s Fund has reportedly raised $2.5 million for survivors of the fire but only given out 10% of that so far.
“The Mayor’s Fund has millions in undistributed money for Bronx fire families, yet we don’t know where that money is going,” Phillips told Documented. “The fund has no accountability and has zero transparency.”
Friends in High Places
According to social media posts by Taveras, restaurant kitchens across The Bronx and Manhattan have been providing the food the Association delivers.
“We are privileged to partner with Mayor Adams in his continual relief efforts to support the grieving families of the Bronx fire,” she said in a statement about the partnership released by City Hall last week.
Taveras is a longtime restaurant consultant who is also a supporter of Adams, donating $1,350 to his mayoral campaign, according to campaign finance records.
In her work as a consultant, she often assists restaurants facing the State Liquor Authority, which regulates the licensing required to sell and serve alcohol. She does not, however, represent them as a lawyer. She was disbarred in 2007 after being convicted of stealing money from clients to pay for a gambling addiction, according to state records and news reports.
She later sued Atlantic City casinos for $20 million, unsuccessfully, saying they should have prevented her from entering.
In January, Taveras helped secure Adams’ support on behalf of Boca Restaurant and Lounge in Fordham, as the eatery faced $100,000 in fines over multiple violations of COVID restrictions in place last spring, according to the SLA.
At a Jan. 19 hearing, lawyers for the restaurant appeared at the hearing in Albany with a signed letter of support from the mayor, which stated he wanted the restaurant to stay open.
When asked by SLA officials if the mayor was aware of the severe charges against the restaurant, including allegedly putting false information on the restaurant’s liquor license, the lawyers said he was.
“My understanding is the mayor is aware of this proceeding and he’s aware” of the character of restaurant owner Emanuel Carela, said an attorney who didn’t identify himself in the hearing.
It included a heated exchange over WebEx, where Taveras told SLA officials that they were punishing a local business and said she personally had obtained the mayor’s support for Boca.
The fines are still outstanding pending a future hearing.
Taveras did not respond to calls seeking comment, and an email sent to the address on NYS Latino Restaurant, Bar & Lounge Association’s website bounced back.
Silverio said the group is a “strong advocate as well as supporter of the community.”
“We began meal services on March 5th as a referral of World Central Kitchen to City Hall while they were deployed to the Ukraine to avoid delays in the meal delivery and operation’s process,” he wrote. “The NYS Latino Restaurant Bar & Lounge Association prides ourselves on providing quality-controlled foods that are culturally sensitive from our extended network of over 350 restaurants throughout the state.”
Mayoral spokesperson Davila-Richards, declined to comment on the SLA hearing.
Carela told THE CITY in a phone interview Thursday that he first got to know Adams through a security company he owned before getting into the restaurant industry. He was then connected to the mayor through Taveras, he said. He also had a letter of support from the head of the local precinct, according to the hearing video.
“I’ve gotten support from everybody, I’m a good player,” he told THE CITY, adding that the charges from SLA were unfair. “I’ve done amazing in that place.”