An interactive story, written by Nikita Stewart, depicting New Yorkers' struggle to survive, and habit changes to overcome the hit of the covid-19 pandemic in the big apple. Families are portrayed by the lens of photographer Todd Heisler, in their day by day, heading to Masbia, and other similar nonprofit pantry organizations, during the pandemic.
Tens of thousands of New Yorkers have shown up at the city’s food banks since the pandemic began. People who were already going to the pantries have grown more reliant on them. But there is relief and hope when they are at home cooking.
New Yorkers are accustomed to lines. Staggered on subway platforms. Clogging the sidewalks in front of Broadway theaters. Snaking outside public pools in the sticky summer heat.
As the pandemic settled into the city, hunger drove tens of thousands of New Yorkers into another type of line — food pantry lines, many for the first time. An estimated 1.5 million people cannot afford food.
While waiting in line can be emotionally draining, receiving food can bring relief — smiles so full that they bubble up like a pot of water on a stove.
We spent some time with New Yorkers who are relying on food banks to get by. They showed that at a time when we feel that nothing is in our control — not even the air we breathe — food is still comfort. Food is routine. Food is family.
José and Leyla sway to music as they cook a dish from their native Peru.
“That’s for poor people,” José Gavidia, a web designer, told his wife, Leyla Moale, in March.
The couple had been walking down Coney Island Avenue when Leyla spotted a food pantry called Masbia of Flatbush. She told her husband that they should get in line, too. “Do you think we are rich?” she asked him in Spanish.
His $30,000-a-year freelancing business had evaporated overnight, and Leyla was shouldering their financial responsibilities with her earnings as a restaurant line cook.
“She pushed me: ‘We have to go. We have to go,’” said José, 45.
The first time they went to the pantry in March, the line was startling and intimidating, wrapping around an entire block.
Going to the pantry quickly became part of their shared schedules. One day after they had stood in line for about an hour, José said with a chuckle: “We got carrots. We got chicken. Eggs. What else? Oil. What else? I don’t remember. Oh, some chips, which is good because my wife doesn’t let me have chips. ‘No, that’s too expensive,’” he said, imitating her.
Leyla chimed in with her rule about snacks: “We make only popcorn at home.”
Days later, they swayed and bobbed to música criolla and Peruvian cumbia, two of their favorite music genres, as they cooked causa limeña: tuna between layers of potato. José used a special masher that he had bought at a market in Peru. The couple were in unison, a nice place to be after their earlier arguments about whether to go to the pantry.
They had their best conversations over meals. “When we are not together here, it’s not the same,” José said. “Talking, eating, it’s something really special for me.”
By August, José was among thousands of Americans who had landed jobs as temporary census data collectors. He was grateful but still worried. “It ends on October 24,” he said of his job.
City Harvest, one of the largest emergency food distributors in New York, recorded nearly 12 million visits to the pantries in its network from March through August — about three million more than in the same period last year.
And BronxWorks, a nonprofit group that provides support services to individuals and families, served just under 500 people each month before the pandemic. It now serves nearly 4,000 per month.
Leslie discovers a new joy in cooking with her daughter, Trinity.
Leslie Johnson began going to a BronxWorks pantry in January. She works as a senior production editor for a book publisher, but was struggling to pay the rent and other bills.
When the pandemic began, she wondered if she should continue going: Maybe others needed it more than her, she thought.
“I didn’t want to take away from somebody else who might be in need,” she said. But, “when the pandemic hit, it became so much more — not an urgency, but a necessity.”
In addition to rent and utilities, Leslie said she had to pay her cousin to babysit her daughter, Trinity, 6, while she worked.
So Leslie kept visiting the pantry. One Saturday, Trinity climbed into the cart and contorted her body to fit, giving her a toddler’s-eye view of the masked people walking along Grand Concourse.
Leslie waited an hour at BronxWorks until she and Trinity were allowed inside. They sat on chairs set six feet apart. The dance of getting up and sitting down, inching closer to a large room where volunteers and staff members stuffed boxes with each person’s order, felt like a game of musical chairs for Trinity, who giggled as she bounced from seat to seat.
Days later, Leslie attempted to cook chicken cutlets from the pantry on her George Foreman grill, unsure of how long to leave them on.
“You’re burning it,” Trinity said, acting more as naysayer than sous-chef.
Leslie regretted never having learned how to make her mother’s West Indian dishes. “Before this, I was not a cook at all.,” she said. “It’s been giving me the opportunity to learn and to practice, and surprisingly, my biggest critic loves the food I’ve been making.”
Trinity helped to set the table with plates they bought at Sesame Place, the “Sesame Street” theme park in Pennsylvania, where they celebrated her second birthday. This year, she had a Zoom party.
The crush of newcomers to food banks around the city came as hundreds of pantries shut their doors — about one-third of pantries and soup kitchens in the city closed for a period of time, or closed and have not reopened.
Most were shuttered because of a lack of volunteers, many of them older and fearful of contracting Covid-19.
Like coronavirus infection rates, hunger has not spread equally. Most of the pantries that closed were in Queens and the Bronx, which have the highest unemployment rates in the city. Sunset Park and Flushing experienced the biggest spike in food pantry visitors, according to data from Plentiful, a food pantry scheduling app.