Last fall, the line in front of the South Asian Council for Social Services’ food pantry in Flushing, Queens stretched all the way to the end of the block, buzzing with local residents who stood with shopping carts and reusable bags, waiting for the pantry to open.
Several weeks later, the sight was similar, with one exception: the line was much shorter.
At a time when the days were getting colder and the fear of contracting COVID-19 loomed large, directors at the pantry implemented changes to ensure their growing client base would be able to access culturally appropriate food without having to wait in a long line.
Fueled by the pandemic that continues to disrupt New Yorkers’ lives, the pantry serves more than 1,200 families each week. And its clients include South Asian residents, as well as an increasing number of families from East Asian countries, such as China and Korea.
Supported by a mix of public and private funding, the food pantry was founded in 2016 to meet a specific need that few of its peers addressed – to serve familiar food to South Asians experiencing food insecurity.
“We had a lot of people in the [South Asian] community who said they would want to go to a food pantry,” said Mary Archana Fernandez, the director of the Council’s family support services. “They were having [a] food crisis. But none of the pantries in the neighborhood serve the food that they eat. That’s how we came up with the South Asian food pantry.”
Economic hardship spurred by the pandemic led a record number of families to turn to the pantry for assistance. This forced the Council to increase the amount of South Asian food it purchased from the Indian grocery store Subzi Bazaar and to receive more shipments of produce and grains from its suppliers such as City Harvest.
In the 12 months before the pandemic arrived in New York City, City Harvest delivered about 125,000 pounds of food to the pantry. During the first year of the outbreak, this amount more than doubled to nearly 274,000 pounds.
One woman, who asked for anonymity because she is undocumented, first visited the pantry about two years ago. Originally from India, she now lives in Flushing with her husband and young daughter. Her husband continued to work during the pandemic despite his fear of contracting COVID-19, but they still found it difficult to make ends meet. They came to rely on the pantry, she said.
“Getting dal and milk and vegetables every week has been really helpful,” she says. “I like that the people here understand what kind of food we eat.”
The food pantry is located in the diverse neighborhood of Flushing, so it has always served non-South Asian families as well. But, during the pandemic, even more non-South Asian families began seeking support.
One woman whose family is from China – who also requested anonymity because she is undocumented – began sourcing food from the pantry a few months after the pandemic began. She was laid off from her job and heard about the pantry from some of her friends.
“This has been a hard time for me,” she said. “But I like the food they give here. They give a lot of food too, and it’s close to where I live.”
Increased demand during the pandemic contributed to concerns for some clients. They were frustrated by the long lines. Some also felt unsafe standing so close to other people for hours at a time.
To decrease wait times and accommodate high need last fall, directors at the pantry decided to distribute food two days per week instead of just one. They also began assigning each of the pantry’s clients a specific day and time slot during which the clients could pick up food without waiting in a long line. Finally, in preparation for winter, they purchased outdoor heaters to help clients waiting in line stay warm.
The coronavirus outbreak also forced directors at the pantry to make changes to protect the safety of their staff and patrons. Before the pandemic, clients could enter the pantry and hand pick the food they took home.
When the pandemic began, directors at the pantry could no longer allow individuals inside the building, so they hired taxi drivers to deliver groceries to clients’ homes. Several months later, when the city gradually reopened with looser restrictions, directors at the pantry began offering curbside pickup of pre-packaged bags.
To better serve its further diversifying clientbase during this time, directors at the pantry decided to prepare two types of bags: a desi – or South Asian – bag and a non-desi bag. Both bags contain staples such as milk, oatmeal and fresh produce.
But the desi bag contains Sona Masoori rice, which is popular in South India; atta, a whole wheat flour widely used in South Asia; and lentils, such as masoor dal, which are commonly used in South Asian dishes. The non-desi bag, on the other hand, includes items such as canned beans, rice, spaghetti and unbleached flour.
“We used to put atta in the non-desi bag, but people kept returning it,” says Fernandez. “We learned that our East Asian clients actually prefer unbleached flour, because they use it to make dumplings. So we started putting that in the non-desi bag instead.”
All of these changes enabled workers at the pantry to safely serve more than 1,200 families during the winter.
Over the next few months, the pantry will continue to deliver groceries and offer curbside pickup. Eventually – when it’s safe to do so – the food pantry hopes to return to its original model of inviting clients in to select their own items.
“It gives people respect and self-determination that they’re picking their own food,” says Fernandez. “They know what they want, and they can decide for themselves.”