An estimated 50,000 needy Jews in the city received special Rosh HaShanah food packages in the past two weeks, and UJA-Federation provided a special grant to allow those below the poverty level to receive food vouchers redeemable at their local supermarkets.
"We’ve been doing this for 20 years," said William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty.
He said the food packages were distributed at about 20 locations in the city: the year-round food pantries operated by Jewish community councils, and six special sites set up for the holiday. He said the special sites (established in Rockaway, Washington Heights, the Lower East Side, Borough Park and two locations in Flatbush) served about 15,000 people. The food packages included challah, gefilte fish, grape juice, honey, oil, carrots, eggs and borscht.
Rapfogel said some packages contained fresh fruits and vegetables that were distributed as quickly as merchants at the Hunts Point Market donated them.
Although food pantries are operated year-round, Rapfogel said special food packages are prepared for Rosh HaShanah and Passover. Last Passover, he said, 70,000 needy Jews received the packages. He said the larger number reflected the fact that they needed kosher-for-Passover staples that are not needed now.
Rapfogel said that since his organization hired Benny Wechsler last year to organize food distribution, the amount of food donations has increased and the ability of the pantries to distribute them has improved. Among the changes he made was centralizing the food pantry by placing it in the Midwood section of Brooklyn to cut down on waste and to better manage inventory at the food pantries.
"Brooklyn is where nearly two-thirds of the Jewish poor live," said Rapfogel.
He noted that many of those who receive food packages also volunteer to help distribute them. In addition, students from the Hebrew Academy for Special Children in Brooklyn also regularly visit the Midwood location to empty boxes of food and put them into shopping bags for distribution.
In addition to donations from UJA-Federation, Rapfogel said funds are also received from the city, state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In all, Met Council, a UJA-Federation recipient, receives about $200,000 a year in government money. The money is used to pay for the vouchers given to those who qualify, based on their income and the size of their family. Vouchers could be as much as $200.
"We know there are 185,000 people in the five boroughs who are at or below the federal poverty level of $24,000 in annual income for a family of four," said Rapfogel. "But there are also the ‘near poor’ and we believe there are more than 100,000 Jews in New York City who are in that area. There are certainly near poor who come for the food packages. No one is turned away."
To learn the location of the food pantry near you, call Met Council at (212) 453-9536.