Providing Food Relief During COVID-19

How our CBO's are fighting the pandemic on the food insecurity front.

July 28, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented numerous challenges to Northern Manhattan- some  foreseeable while others were uniquely frustrating. Many of the most vulnerable members of our community faced great difficulty prior to this global crisis only to find that this disease managed to further compound their struggles. The virus re-exposed the levels of inequity along socio-economic, racial and citizenship status lines. Thankfully, there are several community-based organizations providing needed support to their neighbors in response tp the crises created by COVID19.   

 One such organization is the Community League of the Heights (CLOTH). Founded in 1962 by black parents on 159th Street, they sought to provide resources for young people and beautify their community. The largely volunteer effort run by parents in partnership with teachers continued to grow and now offers wrap around services. With a primary focus on the community above 145th Street, CLOTH services include affordable housing, a food pantry, tech center and work force development, training and certification of community health workers and afterschool programs from PREK- high school. In addition, the organization founded a high school, manages 60 buildings, partners with NewYork-Presbyterian for community programs and conducts outreach to local merchants in support of small and local businesses. 

While food assistance has been a part of their programming since the 1990’s, the demand for this vital service has increased as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Previously, the pantry operated twice weekly and provided food for up to 300 families. After COVID, they were forced to expand and operate six days a week from distribution to delivery. The pantry is feeding on average 500 families every day since March 17, 2020. As a result of this greater demand, the organization has relied on volunteers to run this effort and help distribute food. Yvonne Stennett, Executive Director, described the earlier days of the pandemic as “nerve wracking” as they were unable to meet the community’s need in the first two weeks. She recalled watching the line grow and praying that a truck with food would arrive. While it is important to note that the CLOTH has not turned anyone away, funds are desperately needed to purchase food to supplement donations from the Food Bank for New York City and City Harvest. In addition to the pantry, they have partnered with a local catering company for students experiencing loss of a family member or illness. Through this generous donation, each household member receives three balanced, nut-free meals. While they can respond to the need, Ms. Stennett shared great concern that the food insecurity issues in Northern Manhattan will be longstanding. 

The organization also has faced significant budget cuts as traditional sources of funding from the city and from local elected officials will no longer be available after June 30th. As the need for vital programming remains, the organization is scrambling to find additional dollars. The needs of the population served (90% residents are Latino) have manifested in other areas. Issues with distance learning and access to technology have surfaced. Classes taught in English do not afford primarily Spanish speaking parents the opportunity to assist. CLOTH staff now works as translators and guides to provide some oversight to the students. Most homes are not setup to be dedicated classrooms as households have multiple children and shared devices and spaces has its own disadvantages.  

On another issue has surfaced in economic insecurity. Many families were employed in the service industry and the financial strain has brought significant stress. In a quite ironic development, some have reported that they are compensated far better on unemployment than when they were initially employed. In order to continue to serve clients and be a resource to members of the community, money is desperately needed. When asked how the medical center can truly be of service Ms. Stennett emphasized the importance of partnership and practicing the spirit of community. “We must do this together. Look at ourselves understand the true meaning of community and live that true meaning. Good partners include responsibility on our part.” Please consider a donation to the Medical Center Neighborhood Fund today.