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UJA’s $23M Aims to Assist Struggling Agencies
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UJA’s $23M Aims to Assist Struggling Agencies

Need for food creating ‘crisis we haven’t seen before;’ Senior drop-in centers close.

Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty workers packaging food in a Brooklyn warehouse for what has been a huge uptick in people needing food in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Courtesy of Met Council
Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty workers packaging food in a Brooklyn warehouse for what has been a huge uptick in people needing food in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Courtesy of Met Council

A woman from the Marine Park section of Brooklyn called the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty Monday morning worried about her 62-year-old mother and her 70-year-old mother-in-law, both of whom live alone and are running out of food.

The woman, who is in her 30s and has two young children at home, said her mother has cancer and is afraid to leave her home because she is immune compromised and does not want to catch the coronavirus. And her mother-in-law is homebound. Normally, she shops for them, she said, but she was exposed to someone who tested positive for the coronavirus and is now quarantined at home.

“She said she did not need food for herself at the moment but that she might in the future,” said Jessica Chait, Met Council’s managing director of Food Programs. “But she wanted to know what we could do to get them [the two women] food. We said we would do our best to be supportive.”

Normally, Met Council ships kosher food to 40 sites for nearly 60,000 people. On Passover, it provides kosher-for-Passover food to 129 food pantries for 181,000 people, the largest free distribution of kosher-for-Passover food in the United States. This year, however, the coronavirus and the layoffs that resulted when most businesses closed to stop its spread, has prompted Met Council to prepare food for nearly 200,000, most of them Jews.

“This is a crisis that we have not seen before in our lifetime,” said David Greenfield, Met Council’s CEO and executive director.

To help it meet the surge in demand, UJA-Federation of New York last week announced it was giving Met Council a $1.75 million grant, $1 million of which will help pay for an additional eight staff members, to cover the extra cost of food (which has increased due to panic buying by consumers) and a surge in demand from the unemployed, children who are not receiving city-funded hot meals, and homebound seniors, who are at greater risk for the coronavirus.

Another $250,000 has been allocated to provide Passover-Meals-to Go, created to reduce the anxiety of those newly isolated or quarantined and the newly financially vulnerable.

In addition to the grant to Met Council, UJA-Federation is loaning the Hebrew Free Loan Society $21 million so that it can provide loans to small businesses and offer zero-interest loans to UJA partner agencies that provide essential health and human services for millions of New Yorkers who are facing financial distress.

Eric Goldstein, UJA-Federation’s CEO, said in a statement that these grants are “a critical part of UJA’s broad effort to support the most vulnerable New Yorkers during this crisis. We’re deeply grateful to all our nonprofit partners on the front lines who work tirelessly – day in and day out, and in times of crisis – to sustain our community.”

Among the Jewish agencies forced to close nationwide because of the coronavirus are Jewish community centers which, when they do reopen, “will be smaller, lesser versions of themselves operationally,” according to Doron Krakow, CEO of the JCC Association of North America. In addition, other Jewish nonprofits anticipate similar layoffs and downsizing as a result of the expected recession the country will face once the pandemic has passed.

“If you go to a zero-revenue model for an undetermined amount of months, even the strongest of institutions are going to be challenged,” Eric Fingerhut, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, told JTA. “This is literally hitting every single [Jewish] institution in every single community.”

The state-mandated lockdown in New York that began last Sunday night has meant the closing of museums, including Manhattan’s The Tenement Museum. Its staff of 68 full-time and 70 part-time employees has been reduced to just five full-time employees. The others have either been laid off, had their hours cut or are not being paid.

Also forced to close are the 22 drop-in senior centers in the city operated by the Jewish Association Serving the Aging (JASA) that serve 12,000 older adults annually. The organization normally serves more than 40,000 older adults annually in the New York metro area with programs, services, senior housing and homecare, and is known on Long Island as the Long Island Center for Dignity and Support.

A woman carries groceries and toilet paper in New York, a city that has been transformed by the coronavirus. The crisis is testing the Jewish social service network. GETTY IMAGES

“The Department for the Aging is now planning to distribute meals to individuals’ homes,” said Amy Chalfy, JASA’s co-chief program officer. “We don’t want people going shopping, even to stores that set up special hours for seniors. The 6 a.m. time slot [stores have set for seniors] is early, and it still means they have to come into the store, which exposes them to other people. …We are encouraging people to remain home as much as possible. We also don’t want people to feel isolated, so our staff is reaching out to our people and trying to connect them with their peers.”

“Some stores deliver food, and that’s great,” Chalfy said. “And there is also a possibility that food can be brought to senior housing sites. … Everybody is trying to work together to come up with creative ways to meet demand, and that need will increase. And we are aware that some people who are not now clients will become clients.”

The National Supermarket Association announced this week a partnership with Lyft to provide free transportation for seniors to affiliated supermarkets in certain areas of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. Elizabeth Peralta, NSA’s executive director, said this is a pilot project but that the “goal is to expand to all of those boroughs” in a few weeks.   

Chafly welcomed the move, saying “a free ride is terrific. But the challenge is that we want people to go out safely. For some people, shopping may present a risk. But I think the effort to try to be helpful is laudable.”

‘Off the Charts’

Also seeing an increase in demand for food is the Central Queens Food Pantry, in Forest Hills, operated by COMMONPOINT Queens, a social service organization. Danielle Ellman, its CEO, said last week that the number of clients “doubled between Tuesday and Wednesday” and that it was making plans to begin delivering orders to clients’ homes. And instead of serving lunches to about 100 people in Little Neck and in Flushing, “we converted to grab-and-go, which is really appealing to seniors. It gives them an opportunity to get food when they are anxious and nervous about going into a supermarket.”

Among the special food pantries the Met Council set up for Passover is one at Bais Yaakov, an elementary girls school in Borough Park. Joseph Gross, executive director of the school’s Beth Jacob Day Care Center, said that among those benefiting from the food pantry are day school staff members whose “minimal salaries are not enough to feed their kids, families with lots of children – 7 to 10 – and whose food budget is quite high, single parents and those who don’t have enough income to cover their budget.”

Another nonprofit experiencing a recent spike in demand is the Masbia Soup Kitchen Network, which serves free hot dinners and distributes raw grocery packages at three locations in the city: Flatbush, Borough Park and Forest Hills. Alexander Rapaport, its executive director, said the spike occurred “as soon as people went into food anxiety mode, just like people went to the supermarket in droves. A regular Masbia package gives a whole family supplemental food for three to seven days. Now, we are trying to give a minimum of 14 days for the whole family.”

The organization usually serves 2,000 families, but Rapaport said last week that demand “is off the charts. Every day we have been serving double the amount of clients; the lines are just crazy. Some days we have seen a 40 percent increase in new clients. We’ve had to open an hour early and hire a lot of temps. We generally have a skeleton paid staff and we have a pool of 5,000 volunteers. But very, very few of them have been coming in. Those that do we supply with gloves and face masks.”

Both Masbia and Met Council report difficulty in procuring kosher chickens.

“There is a shortage of chicken even for people who want to buy it,” Rapaport said. “The food supply is not meeting the demand. For us, we are at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to vendors.”

The Orthodox Union, the world’s largest kosher certification agency, issued a statement this week seeking to assure consumers that the supply chain for kosher-for-Passover food to grocery stores has not been disrupted by the coronavirus.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, the CEO of OU Kosher, said that although there has been panic buying in stores, Empire Kosher Poultry, the largest producer of kosher poultry, is slaughtering more than 70,000 pounds of poultry daily and will be making a “significant contribution of poultry to distribute to poor people.”

The chickens Met Council obtains comes through the government procurement process and are sold at a lower price. Suppliers are not eager to go this route when the retail market is more lucrative. Masbia buys its chickens primarily with charity dollars.

Jeff Brown, Empire’s CEO, said in a statement to The Jewish Week: “For over 80 years the mission of Empire Kosher has been to serve the community, and this includes the most vulnerable amongst us. We are honored to be partnering with the OU at this critical time, and are donating thousands of pounds of chicken to their Kosher Food Bank for Passover.”

If there is a silver lining to all of the lockdowns, it is the fact that an independent anti-poverty think tank in the city, Rock and Wrap it Up, is picking up unused food from stadiums, amusement parks and other sites it has partnered with across the country that have been forced to close. The organization’s founder, Syd Mandelbaum, said “things have been pretty wild for the last week-and-a-half. … Food that is kosher I bring to the Five Towns JCC.”

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