Growing number of seniors rely on cash-strapped food pantry



The food pantry at Manor Community Church is open every Wednesday and Saturday, down from three days a week.  Photo: Covenant Mercy Mission.

Going to the Manor Community Church with a shopping cart is a routine for Debbie Cruz, a 66-year-old Puerto Rican who suffers from glaucoma and walks with a cane. Cruz, a thin, grey-haired woman who has come to the pantry for two years, entered the church recently, closed her eyes and quietly said, “Amen.”

During the past four years, the food insecurity rate of adults over 60 years old has risen from 13.8 to 19.3 percent. According to data from the NYC Center for Economic Opportunity, nearly one in five New Yorkers over 65 lives in poverty, and one in ten lives in a household with insufficient food.

The Covenant Mercy Mission, which provides a food pantry in the church, has witnessed a growing number of recipients. From June 2016 to June 2017, the mission registered over 2,300 individuals, and consistently welcomed around 160 new families every month.

In the midst of growing need, the mission finds itself struggling on several fronts: uneven donations from week to week, a tight budget and a lack of young volunteers.

Each week, the church welcomes about 400 people with grocery carts in tow for free food. Nearly 85 percent of them are seniors who live on a fixed income. Every Wednesday and Saturday, the mission volunteers neatly line up the carts, labeled with each recipient’s name, and began to distribute food into them, while William Jones, known as Pastor Bill, delivers a Bible teaching in the church.

“They give you fresh food of a very good quality,” said Cruz, whose food stamps are not enough to support her life. “I can get fresh vegetables here and then use my food stamps to buy meat and rice. This complements my life.”

Volunteers distribute food into shopping carts inside the church. Photo: Yuhong Pang.

Jones, the director of Covenant Mercy Mission, has set up partnerships with three Trader Joe’s supermarkets in Manhattan over the past six years. Besides piling food into the refrigerators for their own pantry, the mission also distributes food to eight other nonprofits in Harlem, Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx. Last year, the mission received food worth $2.4 million from Trader Joe’s.

But the amount of donations fluctuates each week. On a recent Saturday, there was less food than usual. Each cart contained a box of spaghetti, several ears of corn, a bag of beans, a loaf of bread, a bunch of bananas and bags of vegetables. When the shopping carts finally rolled out, they were about two-thirds full.

“We just never know what we will get. Each individual week is different. As far as what we have today, we have very light donations, which is unusual,” said Christopher Love, a junior supervisor at the food pantry.

The unpredictable amount of food worries some beneficiaries. “I have four people in my family, but the food only lasts for three days.  Some people feel that it isn’t worth coming, because the food they get is less. The cart usually was full,” said Mariana Melendez, 69, who has been coming to the pantry for a year. When food is insufficient, she adjusts her menu to make ends meet. “Now, we only have two days food with meat, then the other days we make salad and potatoes.”

Trader Joe’s would not comment on their weekly donation amounts.

The mission has also cut services from three days to two and has limited recipients to only one food pick-up a week, since February 2016.

“I don’t have unlimited resources and our program grows bigger, so I have to assign them to a distribution time in order to accommodate everyone,” Pastor Bill said.

Funds are short for many food pantries, and Covenant Mercy Mission is no exception. With rare private donations, it is primarily subsidized by another NGO, New York Gospel Ministry and operates on a $6,000 monthly budget, which isn’t enough to support its operations. The cost of gasoline for food pickups, vehicle repair bills and insurance premiums for two vans add up to about $1,600 per month. On top of that, two employees’ salaries and church maintenance costs account for the rest of the budget. Outside the church, their white Chevrolet van sat with a cracked right rearview mirror and a dented side-door.

Operating on a tight budget, the mission heavily relies on a greying population of volunteers: its 27 regular volunteers, all over 60, help with all kinds of work from late night driving to food distribution.

Last month, the mission set up a new website for fundraising and Pastor Bill planned to start a door-to-door campaign to businesses in Chelsea over the next couple of months.

“I will do some pretty aggressive fundraisers this year. One of our refrigerators is broken and the rusty chest freezer needs to be replaced,” said Jones.