Miguel Rodriguez stood in a long line outside a food pantry in Long Island City, waiting for his turn to pick up free groceries after his construction company canceled a day of work.
It was the first time Rodriguez, 38, of Elmhurst, came to the pantry run by the charity Hour Children. He said he now earns 30% less than his pre-pandemic wage and his hours are not steady.
“We have two kids at home. We need food. I'm working. We are working, but it's not enough,” said Rodriguez, who lost his job as a cook in March 2020 when the restaurant he was working at went out of business after the government ordered non-essential businesses to close.
Rising food prices are forcing New Yorkers struggling to feed themselves and their families to rely more on food banks and pantries. U.S. inflation has hit its highest level since 1982, eroding consumers’ purchasing power and exacerbating the food insecurity crisis that existed before COVID-19 swept through the city.
But two years into a pandemic that has killed nearly 6 million people worldwide and nearly 40,000 New York City residents, the city is still recovering from the economic fallout. Jobs are slowly returning, but unemployment in the city remains high, particularly in the service industry.
A survey released earlier this month by City Harvest and United Way of New York City polled more than 16,000 New Yorkers who received free food from the charity relief groups across the five boroughs. It found 87% of the respondents anticipate turning to food pantries and food banks more often in the coming months.
Organizers for the aid groups said those who have been at the sites before are now coming more frequently and they are joined by newcomers.
“The faces definitely started changing,” said Kellie Phelan, program coordinator at Hour Children. “We started seeing new faces. We started seeing young faces. We started seeing people, a lot of elders came in from other neighborhoods.”
Standing in the same line as Rodriguez on Feb. 22 was Michael Langerman, 54, of Roosevelt Island. He said he’s been coming to the food pantry for the last few months to pick up groceries for his family of four.
Langerman, who works the graveyard shift at a Manhattan hospital and described his family as low-income, said going to the food pantry saves them more than $100 a month. On previous visits, he received meat, whole chickens, eggs and organic milk, which he said ran about $6.50 a gallon.
“Each trip is like maybe $20, $30 easy,” Langerman said. “For me, it's a couple of hours of work.”
Demand for charitable food has lessened somewhat compared to 2020 peaks, but the needs are still greater than pre-pandemic, according to those who manage food banks and pantries.
Prior to the pandemic, 7.4 million New Yorkers visited food pantries and soup kitchens served by City Harvest from July to December 2019, according to the food rescue and distribution organization. During the same six-month period in 2020, the number surged to 12.7 million individuals, then dropped slightly the following year to 11.9 million people.
Maureen Rush, director of Children of the Light Food Pantry in Canarsie, Brooklyn, said her pantry serves 300 to 800 people a day during the four days it’s open.
“We've seen people coming from everywhere,” said the pastor. “They're coming from many, many zip codes.”
Gavin Wilkinson, a telephone maintenance worker for New York City, was also among those who lined up outside of Children of the Light Food Pantry on a cold Saturday morning in February.
Wilkinson said he lost his jobs twice – in 2015 and again during the pandemic – and raided his retirement funds to pay for living expenses during spates of unemployment. Now, the 50-year-old said he’s trying to cut costs from the family’s grocery bills and use the savings to replenish his 401k account.
“I depleted my resources financially, and this really helps me to get back on track to where I was before,” Wilkinson said.
A gallon of lactose milk, which Wilkinson said he buys weekly, used to cost about $5 is now $7. The food pantry provided chicken, meat, fresh fruits, and vegetables, which Wilkinson said saves his family about $200 a month.
Although he has put some of that savings in his retirement account, Wilkinson said he has a long way to go.
“I'm not back to where I was. I am not there yet,” said Wilkinson. “I'm still trying to recover.”
Leslie Gordon, president and chief executive officer of Food Bank for New York City, said like previous economic downturns, recovery in low-income communities takes the longest.
“We're going to be in this situation for a while,” she said.