Beyond Thanksgiving – Feeding the Hungry in New York City

With the September collapse on Wall Street, New Yorkers are feeling more anxious than usual. Trying to make it in an expensive city where a month’s rent could buy food, shelter, and a trip to the movies in another town — life has become more stressful than ever. In an urban center of extremes where the haves and have-nots are acutely aware of each other, this fall’s economic downturn has created a definitive shift. The conversations focus on how lifestyles have been impacted, who lost what in the market, how retirement and college funds have been decimated, and the number of jobs lost in a variety of sectors.

Yet for a different population, there are even more immediate concerns… where to find the next meal.

Throughout the boroughs, organizations have been working to bring nourishment to those in their respective communities who require help sustaining themselves. Info gets around about where to go to get those needs fulfilled.   In Manhattan’s East 80s, the Park Avenue Christian Church has been running a community lunch program every Saturday for twenty years. I found out about it when I joined the Temple of Universal Judaism, which shares a space with the Church and a dedication to social action. Every fifth Saturday the Temple runs the lunch, which is overseen by other ministries during the rest of the month. The weekend after Thanksgiving, I went with my teenage son to be part of a group that would end up serving food to over 200 people.

In the basement of the church, long tables with metal foldout chairs were set up in anticipation of a crowd that is growing in step with the financial crisis. Starting at 9am, the cooking began in a stainless steel kitchen that was donated to the parish in the 1960s by Colonel Harland D. Sanders (of KFC fame).

Miriam Garron
and her team had put together a menu of Shepard’s pie (ground beef mixed with peas and carrots and topped with buttery mashed potatoes), chickpea salad, and collard greens with smoked turkey. Garron, who works for The Food Network and appears both behind and in front of the camera on “Throw Down with Bobby Flay,” has been running the TUJ meal program for eight years. Her goal is to create a repast of “nice, warm comfort food.” She understands that many of the recipients are not getting proper nutrition, so she tries to assure that they get as “much fruit and veggies” as she can fold into the recipes. Garron is aware that many of those coming in crave flavors that are salty or sweet. I was the server at the coffee and tea station, where people asked for two to five teaspoons of sugar.

Garron told me, “This is a way of using what I know for social good. People deserve as healthy and tasty a meal as we can serve.” With a consciousness to creating an esthetically pleasing set-up in what could be a sterile environment, a red straw basket held plastic-eating utensils wrapped in paper napkins. Oranges were stacked in a metal pot and cookies were piled in a wicker container.

Jeff Cohen, President of the TUJ congregation, said, “Of all the things I do in my life, this is one of the most rewarding.” Referencing the Temple’s social action committee he commented, “This has been a central part of our mission of Tikkun Olam.” 14-year-old Maddie Abrams has been coming with her parents to assist for three years. “It makes me feel good that I can help people out,” she said.

The Coalition for the Homeless
passes on the names of food programs, but word of mouth is equally important. Slightly before 2pm, people line up on 85th Street at the entrance off Park Avenue. The protocol is known. After each person is greeted and is given a number, they get on line to receive their plates and utensils. Seconds are available only after everybody has been taken care of. Leftovers go to those who brought containers. Every fourth Saturday, there is a turkey meal.

There are numerous regulars, some turnover, and the numbers are growing. Luis Alfredo, Pastor and “Urbanologist,” is serving an internship at the Park Avenue Christian Church, and is present every Saturday. “It’s a real cross-section of New York society,” he explains. He spoke knowledgeably about the demographics of the group that had shown up. Two frequent attendees were Native American. Many of the Asian-Americans come up from Chinatown, so as to “maintain face” in their neighborhoods. Alfredo defined three different groups. They were “the homeless, those from shelters where food is not served, and those on limited income.” The latter he characterized as being “better dressed and tapped out by their bills.” Often they are the elderly that must choose between paying for groceries and buying their medications.

Five years ago, the kitchen was feeding around 90 people. Alfredo commented, “It’s a collective problem, and with the way the economy is going – it’s going to get worse.” He talked about his personal experiences, and how after his divorce he was living from paycheck to paycheck. He ended up “on the street for a year.” Discussing the different religious groups that take part in the Saturday kitchen he said, “The greatest thing about this program is that it is ecumenical.” He shared information about his other efforts at outreach, including his involvement with The Ecologies of Learning Project.

By the end of the afternoon, when people had eaten and were coming back for refills on their hot drinks, the room had become quieter. One woman asked tentatively if it was alright to have three teaspoons of sugar and “lots of milk in her coffee.” Before walking back to her seat she said softly to me, “Thank you for being here.”

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