At La Jornada food pantry in Flushing, Queens last Saturday, the line began forming before dawn, despite an autumn-like chill in the air. Hundreds of folding shopping carts snaked up and down several blocks. Their owners—mostly elderly Asian people and young Latin American immigrant mothers with children—huddled in doorways and under empty outdoor dining tents, chatting in small groups, trying to keep warm.
They arrived early and waited because they’re afraid La Jornada will run out of food again.
Before COVID-19 hit the city in March, La Jornada, Flushing’s largest food pantry, fed less than 1,000 families per week. Now, amid massive unemployment due to the pandemic that’ll likely remain so through the end of the year, it feeds 10,000.
Pedro Rodriguez, La Jornada’s founder and executive director, recalled the first day La Jornada reopened in March after relocating from the historic St. George’s Episcopal Church to a community center in the NYCHA-owned Bland Houses.
“We moved in here March 13th. The city was closed,” said Rodriguez. “And then after that, everything started to die. Our friends, businesses…that was at the height.”
Rodriguez and his team set to work preparing for the increase in demand. “We asked for a lot of food. We knew a lot of people were coming,” he said. “But nothing could have prepared Rodriguez for the demand that met him on March 28th.”
When he arrived at 6 a.m., he found several police cruisers waiting for him and a line that stretched for nearly 30 blocks.
“I went to Union Street and I knew that after that I had no food. Children, seniors, other people we’ve been feeding for 12 years…I walked four blocks. After that, I couldn’t handle it anymore,” he said. “So, I walked back, and I said, ‘Let’s get it started. Let’s get as many people as we can home.’”
After that weekend in late March, La Jornada began receiving more assistance in the form of government aid and food donations from City Harvest and private donors.
The pantry’s biggest expense is fresh fruits and vegetables, which it buys from farms in Pennsylvania. La Jornada spends over $30,000 a week on fresh food.
Providing healthy meals is key for longtime volunteer and community leader Bobby Nathan.
“If we’re going to feed people, we can’t be giving them food that will make them sick or send them to the hospital,” said Nathan.
This is especially important in Flushing, where over 20% of the population does not have health insurance.
The increase in donations and government assistance since the pandemic began means that La Jornada barely turned people away in recent weeks, but it has happened.
According to Rodriguez, every week one of two things happens. “Either the food finishes, or the people finish,” said Rodriguez. “ The days when the people finish, great, we’re all happy. The days when the food finishes first are hard.”
Turning people away is especially difficult for La Jornada’s team because many of their clients are undocumented, leaving them with no access to other forms of assistance like SNAP or unemployment benefits. Additionally, Rodriguez says that many of the families he feeds travel from neighboring areas like Corona and Jamaica, which were among the hardest-hit neighborhoods in the city during the COVID-19 outbreak.
But according to Rodriguez, the underlying issue causing food insecurity in Flushing is not COVID-19, but gentrification. The pandemic has exacerbated the food insecurity issue that Rodriguez notes has gotten worse in the last decade. Flushing has developed rapidly in the last decade, leading to an increase in the cost of living that has pushed many immigrant families out.
“If you compare the cost of food in Flushing to the cost of food in Corona, in the supermarkets, everything is 25-50% more. The closest supermarket here is in the mall…The seniors don’t have that kind of money,” said Rodriguez.
While the pantry has received local and federal aid, it has been unreliable. U.S. Representatives Grace Meng and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez–who both cover portions of Queens–announced on September 24th they’re working to combat the reported disruptions in funding. Specifically, the Congressmembers are trying to ensure the continued funding of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) Farmers to Families Food Box Initiative, a USDA-administered that has provided financial aid to food pantries during the pandemic.
Rodriguez said he is proud of the food pantry’s ability to feed Flushing’s residents during the pandemic, but he is not optimistic that a “return-to-normal” will reduce the number of families who need La Jornada’s help. He reports that he has heard numerous stories from people who are returning to work part-time and working for less money–exploited by employers who know many people feel lucky to have a job at all in the post-COVID-19 economy.
“People are going back to work to a place that they now find it easy to be abused,” said Rodriguez. “They’re going back to work part-time…all those protections they had before are gone.”