Lincoln Square neighbors try out WSCAH's new mobile pantry. Photo: Leslie Gersing
The nation’s oldest supermarket-style food pantry is going mobile. A new mini-mart on wheels will offer low-income residents fresh, healthy food in Northern Manhattan and Bronx communities at the greatest risk of hunger.
The Mobile Food Pantry is the latest outreach project of the 39-year-old West Side Campaign Against Hunger. WSCAH staff, local elected officials and social service providers formally launched the customized refrigerated van on Tuesday, May 15 at Goddard Riverside at Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center on West 65th Street. Volunteers helped eligible neighbors select fresh fruit and vegetables, dairy, grains and canned proteins.
There’s already a waiting list.
“It’s allowing people to do exactly what every citizen in America does these days: getting food delivered,” said Greg Silverman, WSCAH’s executive director. “We want to make sure people have the same dignity as everyone else in the community, so we want to bring healthy, affordable, flavorful food to people, where they live, learn and play.”
WSCAH operates a food pantry and social service hub from the basement of The Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew on West 86th Street. Last year, it distributed nearly 1.5 million pounds of food to clients, including working families with children and undocumented immigrants. Clients must prove need for assistance, live in New York City, and have a place to prepare and cook food. They shop the grocery aisles, stocked with produce, meats and other nutritious staples. They also volunteer, get job training, and even sit on the board. Many travel from as far away as Northern Manhattan and the Bronx. But growing numbers of seniors — and others with mobility issues — have trouble making the trip. WSCAH dreamed of bringing the pantry to the people.
Council Member Helen Rosenthal recalls how the community joined forces with WSCAH four years ago, to make it happen. “I remember saying to some of my friends at West Side Campaign Against Hunger, is there some way we could get out into other districts? That would let other people know.” Supporters advocated for the project and shepherded it through a rigorous budget process. During the 2014-2015 round of Participatory Budgeting, Rosenthal’s Council District 6 voted to provide $250,000 to build a mobile pantry.
Test-runs started last October, with staff in a rental van distributing over 150,000 pounds of food to more than 3,000 households. Now, the official mobile truck hits the road four days a week, serving clients at 17 partner organizations. That includes students and young adults taking classes at the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corp. in Washington Heights. “Sometimes people have to make choices between continuing to study with the goal of promoting their careers or continuing to work in more dead end jobs,” said NIMC’s Sara Chapman. “If they’re able to not have make that decision, because they have food on the table, that means they can stay in the program.”
The Food Bank for New York City says more than 1.3 million New York City residents, or 14.9 percent, are food insecure — meaning they lack reliable access to sufficient amounts of affordable, nutritious food. That includes nearly 1 in 5 children. While the improved economy has reduced demand for food assistance, it says, those still getting help are falling farther behind.
New York City Director of Food Policy Barbara Turk called WSCAH a “superstar” for expanding beyond the Upper West Side. “This pantry is going to allow WSCAH to bring food to neighborhoods that are severely underserved and under-supplied,” she said.
Back at Lincoln Square, area resident Celso Ruiz filled his basket with groceries. Speaking in Spanish, he called the mobile pantry a “wonderful” idea “because it helps poor people.”