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Without Federal Aid, Pantries and Agencies Warn of a Dark Winter

Without Federal Aid, Pantries and Agencies Warn of a Dark Winter

Jewish charities have met the growing needs during the pandemic, but fear they can't do it alone.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at

Lines form at a kosher food pantry in Corona, Queens, run by Masbia, July 8, 2020. (Courtesy)
Lines form at a kosher food pantry in Corona, Queens, run by Masbia, July 8, 2020. (Courtesy)

Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, the largest distributor of free kosher food in America, said that the agency is currently distributing 350 percent more food each month compared to corresponding months last year.

“So far, we have been able to meet this tremendous need,” said Jessica Chait, managing director of food programs at Met Council, speaking on a recent panel about the challenges facing charities ahead of a Covid winter.

But, with federal aid packages to assist Covid-19 responders set to expire by the end of 2020 and what Chait referred to as “Covid fatigue” among private donors and government partners, there is no guarantee that Met Council will be able to continue meeting these exponentially increased needs in the months ahead.

“The 350 percent increase in needs will continue whether or not the funds are there to support the work,” Chait said.

As 2020 comes to a close, the statistics look grim. The city’s food pantries and soup kitchens fed 65 percent more people in 2020 than the previous year, according to a new report from the group Hunger Free America. In 2020, 37 percent of pantries and kitchens in New York were “forced to turn people away, reduce their portion sizes, and/or limit their hours of operation due to a lack of resources.” And that was before this winter’s second wave.

Anti-hunger experts warned that several federal food programs are also set to expire, including the Food Purchase and Distribution Program and the Farmers to Families Food Box program. Food banks across the country stand to lose about 50 percent of the food they receive from the Agriculture Department.

The Jewish anti-hunger group Mazon has been urging Congress and the administration to boost SNAP benefits, or food stamps, to combat growing hunger in the wake of Covid-19.

“When the clocks changed it was a wakeup call,” said Alex Roth-Kahn, managing director of the Caring department at UJA-Federation of New York. “With dropping temperatures, even able-bodied people are increasingly isolated.”

UJA-Federation has been part of the the effort that allowed Met Council and other agencies, as Chait put it, the “miraculous ability to meet every need so far.” The Jewish Communal Fund in partnership with UJA-Federation of New York allocated an additional $52 million in emergency grants and loans to the $133 million grants budgeted to meet the immediate and urgent needs created by the pandemic.

“We are thinking creatively to meet the growing needs,” said Roth-Kahn.

Stuart Kaplan, CEO of Selfhelp Community Services, one of the largest not-for-profit senior service agencies in the New York metropolitan area, said the crisis for elderly New Yorkers, including Holocaust survivors, cannot be understated.

“For seniors and Holocaust survivors, the issue of social isolation has been exacerbated,” said Kaplan. “These are people who know all too well what isolation has meant in the past.”

Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty workers packaging food in a Brooklyn warehouse for the first uptick in people needing food amidst the coronavirus outbreak, March 25, 2020. (Courtesy of Met Council

To meet the need, Selfhelp Community Services, Met Council and UJA-Federation are working together to expand opportunities for seniors and low-income New Yorkers (with a significant overlap between the two categories) to have access to kosher food and opportunities to remain virtually engaged in Jewish community.

UJA-Federation will be “rolling out a comprehensive online offering” this winter, with TV technology to accommodate seniors, said Roth-Kahn.. The new online platform is in development with 70 Faces Media and will “enable a central clearing house for Zoom based activities so they are available to everyone,” Roth-Kahn said.

“We’re hoping to engage participants across the spectrum,” from “Russian speaking older adults in Southern Brooklyn looking for a Zumba class to survivors in Faraway looking for a cooking class, an art class or a therapeutic group conversation,” she said. The “virtual world of engagement” is set to provide constant company to those isolated by the pandemic in the New York metropolitan area.

UJA-Federation of New York President Amy Bressman speaks at the opening of Queens Hub, right, a new center in Elmhurst providing job training, social services and emergency food to thousands of New Yorkers, Oct. 6, 2020. (UJA-Federation)

UJA-Federation will also be adding six satellite location to its Central Queens Hub, a new 9,600-square-foot social service center (formerly a bowling alley) that offers employment resources, social services and access to food in Elmhurst, Queens.

Open to all New Yorkers, the Hub is expected to serve 6,000 clients in its first year. The Hub also offers case management, mental health counseling, benefits screening and enrollment, emergency cash assistance, and access to the Commonpoint Queens Digital Food pantry.

UJA has invested nearly $10 million to build the Hub and committed an additional $1.4 million per year for a total of five years in operating costs. The umbrella organization additionally allocated $4.6 million for six satellite Hub locations that opened their doors in November across Manhattan, Brooklyn, Long Island, and Westchester. While the Queens Hub will be permanent to respond to perennial poverty, the satellite Hubs will serve as a shorter-term COVID recovery response, Roth-Kahn said.

“The needs were so high we knew we had to do more,” she said.

Chait of Met Council said the charity is “expanding food pantries” across New York to serve 1,000 people a month and 2,000 Holocaust survivors twice weekly.

“Our job,” said Chait, “is to make sure the most vulnerable among us don’t fall through the cracks.” 

Nevertheless, according to Hunger Free America, “charity alone is not sufficient enough to end hunger in the US, even before the pandemic.” The organization said it is “critical that the federal government provides an adequate federal nutrition safety net to ensure all Americans have access to nutritious food.”

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