At the onset of the pandemic, New York farmers were dumping their crops even as supermarket shelves went empty and pantry lines swelled. To respond to the distribution crisis, the state created Nourish New York, an emergency program to connect small farmers to food pantries. The program was successful in bringing fresh food to neighborhoods where it was historically lacking and giving farmers access to new distribution networks. However, then-governor Andrew Cuomo never intended for the program to be permanent, and it lapsed after only six months.
Seeing how important it was for their communities, state Senator Michelle Hinchey (D-Kingston) and Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz (D-Queens) authored a bill that would make Nourish permanent. It passed the state senate with unanimous bipartisan support and was signed into law by Governor Kathy Hochul in November 2021.
The program faced immediate pressure as the Omicron variant and rising inflation complicated the picture. Within weeks, New York became the epicenter of the pandemic for a second time, leading to more devastating job losses. At the same time, inflation was on the rise, reaching 7.5 percent in January. New Yorkers saw increased price tags at the grocery store as meat and dairy products were hit particularly hard, with prices increasing 16 percent and 4 percent, respectively.
“Way more people are affected by the economic recession that resulted from [the pandemic], which really takes a toll on how they can feed themselves,” said Alexander Rapaport, CEO and executive director of the kosher Masbia Soup Kitchen Network, which operates three pantries across New York City.
Amidst all these challenges, Nourish has again stepped in to support New York farmers and enable food pantries to continue feeding those who can least afford high-quality foods that are highly impacted by inflation and price gouging. Since being signed into law, Nourish’s budget has doubled to $50 million, and farmers can now sell some or all of their products to pantries if they choose, Hinchey said.
Alexander Rapaport inspects the delivery of fresh fish with his head chef, Ruben Diaz.
Nourish has broadened the availability of ingredients for diverse cultures. Outside of CoPO on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn, a Jewish man and Muslim woman both came away with culturally appropriate ingredients.
Clients of the La Jornada pantry in Flushing, Queens, bring food home on Roosevelt Ave.
Mohammad Razvi (far right), CEO of the CoPO pantry in Borough Park Brooklyn, distributes food to a Chinese pantry on Coney Island Avenue. CoPO acts as a food hub where many pantries come for food.
Raul Gonzalez, who served in the 1st Infantry Division of the Army, serves a Masbia client a meal. On Wednesdays and Thursdays Masbia opens its doors and provides dinners for anyone needing a meal. Most recipes use ingredients from Nourish.
Ruben Diaz holds a ninja radish. The ninja radish is a rare variety originally developed in South Korea. This one was delivered from a farm in the Hudson Valley.
New York State apples being distributed outside of Agatha House in the Bronx.
Rafael Morel, Jr., loads New York State kosher dairy products to a storage basement at Masbia.
A woman gleans the last vegetables at CoPO.
Clients line up outside of Masbia well into the evening. At the height of the pandemic the pantry operated 24 hours a day. Now doors open at 9AM and close at midnight.
Nourish products have also helped avert another crisis, one that was created by the new administration in City Hall. From the beginning, Nourish was supplemented by an emergency city-run program called the Pandemic Food Reserve Emergency Distribution Program (P-FRED), which supplied pantries with fresh and shelf-stable food. P-FRED was supposed to continue until the end of June, but on February 28, the food stopped coming without notification, sending pantries throughout the city scrambling.
The city’s Human Resources Administration, which oversees P-FRED, said that the program has not been terminated but is “winding down;” for the pantries that relied on it, it’s been all but terminated. At the height of the pandemic, Masbia’s three locations received 36 truckloads of P-FRED goods each week, Rapaport said; now there are none.
“Imagine just waiting for trucks to arrive and they’re not arriving. There wasn’t a notification. It was shocking, catastrophic,” Rapaport said. In order to feed the 1,500 people in line on February 28, Rapaport turned to the emergency reserves of shelf-stable foods that he stored for blizzards and hurricanes.
A permanent Nourish means that pantries all throughout New York State can count on a reliable source of food when local programs like P-FRED fail. “Throughout the last year, NY Nourish has been our saving grace. The additional funding through Nourish has been essential for fulfilling the hunger, nutritional, and cultural needs of the community,” said Kelsey Simmons, director of programs at the Council of Peoples Organization (CoPO), a nonprofit community service group that runs a halal pantry.
With Passover rapidly approaching, cultural needs are top of Rapaport’s mind. “[The city] pulled resources right before the holiday. There’s something very wrong to me in that. It’s like pulling the program right before Thanksgiving,” he said. “Nourish will be the backbone of our Passover distribution.” On Passover, tables at Masbia will have New York dairy and grape juice. “If every family gets a nice amount of New York grape juice and New York cheese and yogurt, that’s a beautiful Passover package.”
Since Nourish began, one of its major distributors, City Harvest, has distributed more than a million pounds of beef, chicken, fish, and pork produced by New York farmers. “We’ve gotten high-quality animal protein [through distributors like Baldor Specialty Foods],” said Max Hoffman, associate director, supply chain, at City Harvest. “It’s been incredibly productive for us.”
For the first time, Masbia was able to serve hard-to-find dairy products that meet high kosher standards, Rapaport said. “While most of the time I was focused on stretching every dollar, I also took into consideration that the intention of those dollars was to help small farms,” he said. “Therefore, ordering some local, fancy, organic yogurts or fresh produce was part of the mix.”
After the millions of dollars spent and thousands of mouths fed, it’s ultimately the individual meal recipient who benefits. To better understand those impacts, Civil Eats visited four food pantries to document the ways that Nourish New York is truly nourishing residents.
Jeannette Joseph-Greenaway, executive director of Agatha House Foundation
“Nourish has been very good. People really appreciated the dairy—the milk, and cheese, and the yogurt—that they received. It was a great complement to go with what we were giving out. The price of milk has gone up tremendously. . . . [It was already pricey] back then when we were getting it, and today it’s even more expensive.”
“Last night, six pallets of meat were delivered, which went to 200 people,” Joseph-Greenaway said. “We were able to give chicken, beef, bacon, and lamb to these people. That’s so important right now when the supermarket shelves [are] either empty or what’s left is too expensive.”
Kendra Lawson, Agatha House visitor
Kendra Lawson realized during the pandemic that her diet was causing her to gain weight and feel unwell. Eating fried foods, she said, also led to depression and left her listless. “I didn’t have enough energy to do anything.”
Her poor eating has deep roots. Lawson said her ancestors were slaves and her parents lived on a plantation. They were never given any education in nutrition and, she said, they ate what they were given. Lawson came to Agatha House as part of an effort to break the cycle of unhealthy eating.
“This is the first time I’ve visited a pantry. Passing by, I saw all the fresh, beautiful vegetables. I wanted to see if they were free for the community, because I want to start eating healthier stuff.” Lawson started to make small adjustments, and within nine months, she had changed her diet. “I had to break the cycle because I also wanted to teach my kids,” Lawson said. “I saw the difference in my energy, how I move. My energy level was better from eating broccoli, kale, asparagus, baked and steamed salmon.”
“I realized that we didn’t have to eat fried chicken—you can bake it,” she said. “[Historically, my family was not] taught to eat healthy. We had to eat what we had because of slavery and things of that nature. My mother and her mother never had any options because they grew up on plantations. Now that I’m older and I have options, I want to give myself good things.”
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Shari Suckarie was visiting New York from Los Angeles to help her mom, who had just had an operation. The pandemic, inflation, and her mother’s health all affected their ability to buy food.
“Some of us aren’t working that much anymore, and as prices change, it makes it difficult for us,” Suckarie said. “Fifty dollars goes so fast, even with just 10 items. Having [Agatha House] definitely comes in handy—it saves us a little money.”
Suckarie is doing all the heavy lifting and cooking for the household, which also includes her grandmother, who doesn’t eat certain things. “Culturally, this pantry means a lot to me,” she said. “I can get a lot of stuff that we actually use in [Jamaican] culture.”
“We get plantains, collard greens, and bok choy, which is called pop chow in our culture,” Suckarie said. “What we don’t eat, we share. We share a lot, and [it] goes to our neighbors, who like cooking these meals as well. It goes a long way.”
Suckarie was interviewed when P-FRED was still in operation. The plantains, collard greens, and pop chow are no longer available due to P-FRED’s drastic scaling back. Joseph-Greenaway said the loss of the program was devastating. The foods provided by P-FRED allowed Joseph-Greenaway to diversify Agatha House’s on-hand funds so that she could address other needs in the community, including feminine hygiene products and health screenings and education.
Alexander Rapaport, executive director of Masbia
For Rapaport and his team, the ongoing impacts—and the huge but largely invisible scale of need—are ongoing challenges. “I generally feel that the hunger side of this historic pandemic is underreported. It is, to me, about the invisible, digital breadline—and it’s overwhelming,” he said.
The “digital breadline” refers to Masbia recipients who make their appointments online rather than standing in line at its various locations, where there are usually no more than a dozen people waiting. “Even if the lines look smaller, they’re not. Our numbers now are actually greater than when the pandemic began. If everyone came at the same time, the line would stretch two times around the block,” Rapaport said.
“The beauty of [Nourish] is that it moved the money very fast and allowed us—the food pantries—to make the purchases, and the invoices were paid for by the state,” he said. “While most of the time I was focused on stretching every dollar, sometimes I also took into consideration that the intention of those dollars was to help small farms.”
Beyond getting people the calories they need, the close relationships between pantries, food procurement organizations, and small farmers are also helping people in need eat more nutritious and culturally relevant meals. For Domingo Serrano, a volunteer at La Jornada, delivering high-quality food is about human dignity. “There’s so much power in the ritual of cooking food. People deserve not just food, but good food. It goes beyond nourishment. There’s respect to humanity in giving out better quality food.”
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Odr was especially grateful to see how CoPO provides culturally relevant foods for Brooklyn’s diverse population.
“We are inclined toward the foods that we grow up eating. Food varies wildly from culture to culture, but at the end of the day, a lot of its core elements and ingredients are very similar. And that’s something that we’re thankfully able to provide.”
Odr sees the partnership between kosher Masbia and halal CoPO—which is supported by Nourish NY—as yet another strength of the program. “At the end of the day, we’re New Yorkers. Despite our differences, we’re united, one. Knowing that you are enabling people to keep going with their lives and for them to have fewer things to worry about—it’s something that you can’t help but find joy in.”
The Future of Nourish
We noted in our first report on Nourish that, historically, pandemics have led to innovations, and “redesigning local food distribution systems might just be one of COVID’s silver linings.” However, after the program paused, it was unclear whether Nourish would ever exist again, let alone make a lasting impact.
Now, as we enter the third year of the pandemic, it’s clear that it has. By lessening dependence on suppliers thousands of miles away, bringing food insecure neighborhoods better nutrition, and bolstering small farmers, the program has already made an important impact that continues to evolve. And Senator Hinchey intends to keep innovating.
“New York is about to become the breadbasket of the nation once again,” Hinchey said. “With the effects of climate change, Florida might be underwater. California is [consistently] on fire, and the Midwest is facing severe drought. We need to be supporting, prioritizing, and protecting our food supply, and therefore our small and mid-sized family farms. These farms are going to be leading the climate change fight. We have to be doing everything to keep them in business now, so that in 10 years . . . we have that farmland. Nourish is a core component of that.”
Jake Price is a New York City-based photographer and filmmaker. After working as a photojournalist and producer at the BBC and New York Times, he shifted his work to filmmaking and immersive media production. Price’s many projects been awarded by the World Press Photo and have also been displayed internationally. Read more >