What started out as a special holiday gift for the residents of Amsterdam Houses on December 11, 2020 ended in an unfathomable tragedy. The West Side Campaign Against Hunger (WSCAH) had been asked by Congressman Jerry Nadler’s office to provide a food drop-off at the Amsterdam Houses community room on West 64th Street. There was even a Nadler security team that accompanied Pedro Aguilar and his partner who were assigned that day to do the special delivery. Moments after delivering the food and rolling his pallet onto the sidewalk, Pedro would lie on the ground severely wounded by gunshot. His partner would also be injured as he fell to the ground upon hearing the sound of the shot.
Pedro has vivid memories of that day in December. “As I was walking back to the sidewalk with the empty food pallet, I saw a boy to my left. The next thing I knew there was a shot, my legs became weak and I fell to the ground. My partner called 911, the police and ambulance came quickly and took me to the NY-Presbyterian hospital on the East Side. I immediately began to wonder if I would ever see my family again.”
Two months later, Pedro is home recovering – feeling lucky to be alive so he can be with his children and wife, Daisy. We hear so much about the heroism and bravery of the city’s essential workers. We recall the nightly cheers for the first responders, grocery workers and hospital staff on the front lines.
We don’t think of these workers getting caught in the middle of a gunfight for no rhyme or reason – the victims of another inexplicable event as many in the city struggle to endure the raging disease, loss of work and need to put food on their tables.
Greg Silverman, the WSCAH executive director, remembers that day well. “COVID has really numbed all of us. We have gotten so used to chaos and tragedy,” he said. “I was in my office when a staff member ran in and said Pedro had been shot. I knew we were doing a special food delivery that day near Lincoln Center. However, before I fully realized the extent of what happened, I grabbed my coat, quickly got in a cab and made it down to 64th Street. This is what we do as a community. When I got there, they had already taken Pedro to the hospital. The other staff member was still there and quite traumatized.”
Mobile Market Program
WSCAH, located in the basement at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew on West 86th Street, has a long history of addressing the problem of hunger in the city. In October 2017, WSCAH created a Mobile Market Program bringing healthy foods to neighborhoods throughout the city with high rates of poverty and food insecurity. WSCAH has partnered with hospitals, settlement houses, faith-based organizations, immigrant groups and other community-based organizations to deliver boxes of fresh food. They have also expanded their social services, helping their food customers with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps), Medicaid and housing benefits.
Silverman comes from a strong food background. He has been a chef, restaurateur, soup kitchen board member, and international nutrition and food policy expert. He brings an entrepreneurial approach to WSCAH and a passionate consumer-oriented bent to his work. “The people we deliver food boxes to are our customers. Why should we expect people who need food to come to us?” he said. “We need to go out to where they are. This is even more true since the onset of the pandemic.”
Before the pandemic, WSCAH was delivering fresh food at 15 locations. People would come to the side of the delivery truck and receive their food boxes. Silverman points out that they have doubled the amount of food they are distributing since the pandemic, and over 50% of the boxed food is fresh produce, compared to 20% before that. This is due, in part, to WSCAH’s involvement in the governor’s Nourish New York Program that provides food produced by upstate farmers to local food banks and communities in need.
However, Silverman is concerned that his staff, like Pedro, are unable to get the COVID-19 vaccine. He has been exhorting the governor’s office to loosen its restrictions. “The state doesn’t see our food workers as a priority to be vaccinated. We can help out the upstate farmers by purchasing their food, but they won’t give the vaccine to the Pedro Aguilars of the world,” he lamented.
WSCAH has doubled the number of households it serves through its partner agencies who then distribute the food boxes to people in their communities. The agency delivers nearly 800 food packages a week helping close to 3,000 individuals who are food insecure. Last year, the program reached 50,000 customers across all five boroughs.
Pedro Aguilar has been one of WSCAH’s mainstay workers in its distribution system. He had been working at City Harvest as a deliverer when he was laid off because of the pandemic. He joined WSCAH last April when the agency began to ramp up its mobile food delivery program. “He immediately melded into the organization,” commented Stephanie Moshier, the director of the Mobil Market Program and Pedro’s supervisor. “He is always looking for a way to help. All of the drivers are great but Pedro always goes the extra mile. You can tell how much he cares. When he was injured, we received an extraordinary number of emails from our community partners. The incident has been devastating.”
Pedro’s story reflects the NYC immigrant experience. “My life is like a novel,” Pedro shared with me in a recent phone call. “I am an immigrant like everybody else. I am a bagel maker during the night and work delivering food to the community during the day. I know that there are risks – above all during this time of crisis – but I do this work with a smile and from my heart.”
He continued, “I have worked as a cook, counter person and specialize in cooking Greek and Italian food. The funny thing is I’m not good with Mexican food.” His wife, Daisy, who also worked in the Queens bagel shop, has since had to leave her job to take care of Pedro and their children.
Pedro has been home recovering and is anxious to return to work. The doctors say there is a long road ahead but he will eventually be able to work again.
The family has begun a GoFundMe campaign with a target to raise $90,000. They have already reached nearly $65,000. Pedro and Daisy are concerned with how they will make ends meet. ”We have used up all of our savings,” said Pedro. “We are two months behind in rent and haven’t paid the electricity bill. Still, WSCAH has been very supportive and is doing everything they can to help. I know they are there for us.”
The essence of this kind and caring man comes through in talking to him. “I am not a person of hate or rancor,” he commented. “I would like to see the face of the individual who did this. My heart will forgive and God will decide our fate.”
You can support Pedro and his family by donating to their GoFundMe Campaign, Daisy Condado, Organizer.
Stephan Russo is a West Side Spirit contributor. He served as the Executive Director of Goddard Riverside Community Center from 1998-2017.
“My life is like a novel. I am an immigrant like everybody else. I am a bagel maker during the night and work delivering food to the community during the day.” Pedro Aguilar