Last week, as pictures of empty supermarket shelves filled social media feeds and closure announcements from restaurants filtered in, City Harvest mobilized to put their plans in place so they, along with hundreds of soup kitchens and food pantries across the city, could still provide food to New York’s neediest. That work will be critical, especially for the homeless and working families right now. Last night, a spokesman for the city Department of Homeless Services said, seven homeless people living in city shelters tested positive for the coronavirus.

City Harvest primarily serves individuals and families in the five boroughs who do not earn the basic cost of living with free food. Their reach is broad and their mission is to feed all the food insecure in New York City.  For example, a family of three in the Bronx, making under $76,000, qualifies as food insecure according to City Harvest. They also distribute food to over 400 soup kitchens and food pantries around the city. That’s how the group, the largest food rescue organization in New York, operated before COVID-19 turned the world upside down, and how it plans on operating now.

This week and last, the non-profit’s role in ensuring that  the most vulnerable New Yorkers continue to have safe access to food became crystal clear. Over the weekend, said Racine Droz, director of Food Sourcing and Donor Relations, she wasn’t expecting the 20 volunteers that turned out at one of their two Mobile Markets in the South Bronx. “It was way more than I’d thought given the news,” she said, referring to the news that COVID-19 was spreading and leaders ordered New Yorkers to stay home and self-isolate.

The organization’s 160 full-time employees and 10,000 volunteers are operating at full tilt now, mobilizing as news on the ground and across the city changes daily. And as the city and state started to put more restrictions on restaurants since last Friday, culminating in shutting down dine-in service on Monday, City Harvest started to receive an above-average number of donations.

Restaurants like Le Bernardin and Café Boulud announced closings, as did the Union Square Hospitality Group. The basketball season was suspended, as well. As of Thursday, over 50 restaurants and venues have reached out and donated perishables: produce, meat, dairy, fish. Since Friday, they have received over 50,000 pounds from restaurants across the city due to COVID-19-related closures.

During what used to be a typical week, restaurant donations account for 2% of their total; now, as a result of the closings, donations are at 10%. In another time, restaurants simply couldn’t give as generously because they operate on such thin margins. But as New York’s restaurateurs faced their own harsh realities , many  thought of the neediest and City Harvest. Among them, Le Bernadin's chef and co-owner Eric Ripert helped distribute food on Sunday in the south Bronx:

While restaurants have always donated, most of the food City Harvest receives to feed 1.2 million New Yorkers typically comes from farms, grocery stores, and wholesalers. However, as people have rushed to grocery stores and picked shelves bare, those avenues have tightened. It’s not that the food supply isn’t there, Droz said, it’s that the grocers and wholesalers simply do not have as much bandwidth to offer donations since they are stretched by their own shoppers' demand. Still,  bigger players are certainly still giving—this week, Trader Joe’s contributed a large donation, according to Samantha Park, City Harvest’s director of communications.

To adjust to the sudden increase in donations last week and this week, Droz said, “We had to raise our minimum pick up from 100 pounds to 3,000 pounds.” Smaller donations, though, don’t go to waste. City Harvest also connects smaller restaurants that they can’t accommodate with local soup kitchens and organizations so that all donations can be utilized.

Now, on the ground, City Harvest operates a fleet of 22 trucks across the city for food pick-ups and deliveries. Currently, they’re also working with NYC Housing Authority (NYCHA) to set up pop-up food distribution sites across town so low income and homeless populations have safe access to food in the coming weeks and months. The particulars, Droz said, are currently being worked out and a trucking company, they hope, will help them scale

Earlier reports stated that senior centers would be used to distribute food, but, Droz said, those talks are ongoing. What they want is to secure various locations across the city for easy access,

“I worked 18 hours" on Monday, the day the restaurant industry was essentially shuttered, Droz said. "And I worked over the weekend. Our fleet [of trucks] is stretched thin. I see it, but we’re also planning.”

City Harvest staff and volunteers repacking shelf stable food at a City Harvest Food Rescue Facility located in Long Island City.

City Harvest staff and volunteers repacking shelf stable food at a City Harvest Food Rescue Facility located in Long Island City.

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City Harvest staff and volunteers repacking shelf stable food at a City Harvest Food Rescue Facility located in Long Island City.
Ben Cohen / City Harvest

As for social distancing at their markets, Park explained, “We’ve reduced the numbers of volunteers, who pack the food, so they can operate at 6- feet distances. The receivers are grouped in clusters of 10 and we’re keeping those people 6 feet apart and at the right distance from each other too. That’s how it will work.”

While lots of atypical donations are coming in now, thanks to the restaurants’ “high-quality” donations, City Harvest is currently looking for shelf-stable foods.

They are also sharing what they have with other non-profits like Citymeals, which provides food to 18,000 homebound seniors in New York. This weekend, Citymeals borrowed two trucks from City Harvest to deliver meals. Additionally, Citymeals is planning to deliver multiple shelf-stable meals to seniors so they can ration in the days ahead.

Operationally, Droz said, they could spare the two trucks because “we adjusted our route to accommodate the shortfalls and make the drives more efficient.” Raising their minimum donations helped.

Until recent events, City Harvest, Food Bank for New York City and Meals on Wheels, among other organizations in New York, met with the New York City Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, which formed after Hurricane Sandy, four times a year.   More recently, Droz explained, “We worked together to respond to the government shutdown in late 2018 to early 2019.”

At those meetings they planned for a time such as this, discussing response efforts, practices, and strategies. In mid-February, as concerns about the coronavirus grew, Droz said, those meetings became weekly.

City Harvest is also a member of New York Emergency Management’s Food Access Lead Team (FALT), which directly supports the city with mass feeding programs during disasters. After Hurricane Sandy hit in 2013, City Harvest worked to provide relief to New Yorkers as well.

Managing the perishables that they’ve received recently, Droz said, is complicated and it requires thought. “Every day the news is changing,” she said. And, as more food rolls in and City Harvest focuses sharply on that effort, they and their partners look towards the future, adjusting daily, strategizing weekly, and working tirelessly.

“We’re looking for non-perishable donations right now,” Droz repeated.

With new social distancing restrictions in place, City Harvest is also packaging "family-ready" food boxes that people can simply pick up without needing to interact much with staff and volunteers. 

Given the blows to the economy brought on by this pandemic, they’re  anticipating even more New Yorkers will be requiring services. To make donations or volunteer, visit their websitewww.cityharvest.org.