The food pantry in action Photos by James Farrell
BY JAMES FARRELL
On Saturday, Pedro Rodriguez stood atop the ramp leading into the 38th Avenue entrance to St. George’s Episcopal Church, just off Main Street in Flushing. In a black blazer and black turtleneck sweater, he greeted a line of parents, seniors and children in English and in Spanish. He smiled through his gray beard as they filed up the ramp through the medieval-looking red doors that lead into the church. The temperature hovered below 30 degrees, yet the line stretched all the way down the ramp and curved around the corner behind the church. About 400 people would go through the church in the next hour. It was 12:30 p.m.—Rodriguez was opening the doors to his food pantry, La Jornada, a half hour earlier than usual.
“Sometimes you gotta strike some rules. It’s too cold,” he said. “People start making this line at six o’clock in the morning,” he added.
But inside it was warm. A frosty, white Christmas tree greeted the visitors as they entered the church’s gymnasium to collect, among other things, Concord Grape Juice, pasta, and canned cherries, pumpkins and beans from smiling volunteers. For many in downtown Flushing, the La Jornada food pantry at St. George’s Church, which distributes free food every Wednesday and Saturday, is a primary source of weekly food. Queens, and especially Flushing, is facing a hunger problem, Rodriguez says.
According to a survey released late November by Hunger Free America—formerly the New York Coalition Against Hunger—one in nine Queens residents lived in food-insecure households from 2013 to 2015. And while that may not be as bad as other boroughs, like the Bronx or Brooklyn, it’s up from last year’s survey, which put the figure at one in 12 Queens residents from 2012 to 2014.
Rodriguez says that he has seen drastic increases at his own food pantry. Last month, La Jornada fed 13,361 people, according to the numbers Rodriguez reports to the city. That includes over 4,000 children, more than 6,000 adults and about 2,800 seniors.
The numbers have increased virtually fivefold since last year, according to Rodriguez.
“Last year, we were serving 2,000 people a month,” said Rodriguez. “Now we’re serving like 10,000 people a month.”
Rodriguez believes that a big part of that increase comes from more people in Flushing being forced to rely on Emergency Food Relief Organizations (EFROs)—food pantries, food banks and other free-food distribution agencies like La Jornada. He argues that Flushing’s rapid development, spurred on by its booming real estate, has led to increased rents and more expensive food options.
“Once those new condominiums and everything get built, then the supermarkets for those people are more expensive,” he said.
“The rent goes up, food goes up, what happens? They have to find a place like this.”
Joel Berg, executive director of Hunger Free America, produced the abovementioned survey and agreed that gentrification and development can be epicenters of hunger.
“The price of rent in New York is incredible. Of course it’s incredible in Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn, but one of the main points in our study is that when you see places like Queens and Staten Island in trouble, you understand what a real problem this is citywide,” said Berg. “And the bottom line is, when wages don’t keep up with expenses, people are going to go hungry.”
Numbers from the Food Bank of NYC (one of La Jornada’s funders) show that the meal gap—the total number of meals missed in a community due to lack of resources—for the Community Board 7 region, which contains Flushing, was between 4.4 million and 4.8 million in 2014. Of Queens regions, only Community Board 12 in southeast Queens had a higher range, with a gap estimated to be greater than 5.8 million meals. (Community Board 1 and Community Board 13 fell into the same range as Community Board 7).
La Jornada is one of at least 12 food pantries in Flushing, according to data provided by Hunger Free America. For communities inside and outside Flushing, it’s the food pantries and other EFROs like La Jornada that help many of those in need.
For Rodriguez, starting La Jornada was a calling that began eight years ago.
A salesperson, Rodriguez returned to his successful life in Bayside after a mission trip to Honduras only to feel empty. Then a friend suggested they go out to Flushing to give food to the day laborers who worked in the area. Rodriguez had never seen day laborers in Queens before, and was shocked to find out how common they were. He began to give out sandwiches to the day laborers on 69th and Broadway—something he still does today.
But as the laborers began to bring their families for food as well, Rodriguez felt compelled to serve the whole community.
“We said, ‘We have to serve the community,’” Rodriguez said. “We are committed to serving immigrants and the poor in Queens.”
His program is funded by the organizations Food Bank of NYC and United Way. It is entirely volunteer work—nobody gets paid.
Volunteers like Diana Leifels volunteer their time because it’s rewarding.
Leifels began volunteering two years ago after she retired and was looking for something to do.
“This is the greatest feeling in the world, doing this,” she said. “And we also give food out on the street to people who are homeless, and giving them these bags, some people, when you see it, it’s like Christmas, their eyes just light up.”
But the pantry does have some concerns. According to the Hunger Free America survey, 24 percent of the EFRO agencies reported not having enough food to meet current demand. La Jornada was one of them. Rodriguez is worried that if the numbers continue to rise, and if the new administration cuts programs like SNAP (the official name for food stamps) or welfare, it could make things much worse.
“We have like two or three times a month, we have to send people home because we don’t have enough food,” said Rodriguez.
When asked about his favorite memories from La Jornada, Rodriguez decided to make a new one, instead of recall an old one. He grabbed some food from volunteers who were beginning to put it away and handed it to a child sitting on a chair on the side of the room.
“Gracias,” the child said.
Rodriguez began to choke up.
“They are the reason that we’re here,” he said, fighting back tears. “They and the seniors are the most important part of this program. One is the future, and the other, they have worked so hard.”
Reach James Farrell at (718) 357-7400 x 127, firstname.lastname@example.org or @farrellj329.