By Carol Tannenhauser
The pandemic has brought out the hunter-gatherers in us. So much time is now spent focusing on food: planning and accomplishing trips to the market, securing delivery slots to replenish supplies.
But since the start of the shutdown, a growing number of New Yorkers are experiencing a far more dire form of “food insecurity.” Suddenly unemployed, they can no longer afford to feed themselves or their families. In some parts of the country, cars are lining up for miles to visit food banks.
On the Upper West Side, a long-standing nonprofit is responding to the emergency. Located in the basement of Saint Paul & Saint Andrew United Methodist Church, on the corner of 86th Street and West End Avenue, the West Side Campaign Against Hunger (WSCAH), through its food pantry, is providing free and healthy groceries to all New Yorkers who need them, as it has for 40 years.
“WSCAH started in the early 1980s because there were hungry West Siders, and community members who wanted to do something about it,” said Executive Director Gregory Silverman. “They developed a model for delivering food aid in a more respectful manner, designing, in a sense, a ‘free supermarket.’ We believe in dignity, and we don’t believe in the idea that beggars can’t be choosers.”
“Anyone is eligible to ‘shop’ for food at West Side Campaign Against Hunger,” explained Erika Freund, director of development and communications. “There are no eligibility requirements. All (first-time) customers do meet with our social-service counselors for an assessment to ensure we are connecting everyone to other essential benefits, such as health insurance.”
Before the pandemic, WSCAH was already one of the largest emergency-food providers in New York City, serving over 22,000 individuals yearly, and distributing over 1.6 million pounds of food. Last year, WSCAH also connected 4,000 families to essential social services and benefits. It has been deemed “essential,” and its packers and servers are front-line workers.
Since the shutdown, to meet safety and social distancing requirements, WSCAH has moved its market outside, setting it up and breaking it down every day. Choice has had to be curtailed; now pre-packed bags are handed out. Seniors have noticeably disappeared from the scene. WSCAH is in the process of arranging deliveries to them through taxi services. Their absence has also impacted WSCAH’s 1,700-member volunteer corps, upon which it depends.
WSCAH pays for its food and services — it has about a $3 million annual budget — with funds from government grants (the mayor recently allocated $25 million in emergency funding to food pantries) and by raising money from foundations and individuals.
“The truth of the matter is, we need our community to come together again, so we can feed everyone in need,” Silverman said. “We’re seeing many more new customers coming to us for food and to sign up for benefits. We’re spending $15,000 more per week, because we’re buying a lot more food. Yesterday (April 15th) alone, we served 210 families, representing well over 500 people. 70 of those shoppers had never been to us before — and the need is just going to continue to grow.”
WSCH is not accepting donations of food. “For safety, health and efficiency reasons, direct food donations from individuals are not the most effective way to support our community,” Silverman explained. “So, we’re kicking off a virtual food drive this week. You can donate dollars for specific products.”
$25 buys a case of oranges; $50 buys four cases of milk; $100 buys 300 pounds of fresh potatoes. To find out what $250 buys and to donate to WSCAH, click here.
If you need food, the WSCAH Food Pantry — (212) 362-3662 — is located at 263 West 86th Street (corner of West End Avenue.) Hours are: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday 9am – 1pm (Please arrive at least a half hour before closing.)