Sarah Thankam Mathews started Bed-Stuy Strong in March to combat food insecurity in the historically Black neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. (Photo courtesy Mathews)
Sarah Thankam Mathews started Bed-Stuy Strong in March to combat food insecurity in the historically Black neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. (Photo courtesy Mathews)

As Americans brace for winter during a pandemic that continues to rage on, nonprofits and social agencies are mobilizing to feed those who will go hungry as a result.

Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on all aspects of daily life, and it is worsening an already devastating problem for millions of families and children: food insecurity. The Department of Agriculture defines the term as a “lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle.” In other words, families cannot afford to put well-balanced meals on the table.

According to nonprofit Feeding America, pre-pandemic, 37 million people — including more than 11 million children — lived in a food-insecure household. Projections factoring in increased poverty and unemployment rates due to the virus show those numbers jumping to 54 million people, including 18 million children, in 2020.

[Related: Amid Angry Rhetoric, Kitchens Helping Immigrants and Refugees Are on the Rise]

To help combat this crisis, passionate, entrepreneurial women from all over the country are creating networks of food deliveries — in some cases starting completely new careers or pivoting existing business models. They are helping to fill gaps on a grassroots level that have overwhelmed bigger organizations. 

Millennial Mutual Aid

Bedford-Stuyvesant, a historically African-American neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, has gentrified rapidly over the last several years — yet the poverty rate hovers at 27%, compared to 17% citywide, according to the most recent figures from New York University’s Furman Center.

Sarah Thankam Mathews, a two-year resident of the neighborhood enshrined in Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing, remembers stopping to chat with an elderly neighbor in March.

“He was not in good health, sitting out on his stoop, and we talked a little bit,” she recalled. When she went home and watched news about the insidious spread of coronavirus, “I just started feeling tremendous anxiety.”

“I also felt confident that the government response would not be adequate, compassionate or proactive,” Mathews added. “The thought that kept appearing in neon red was, ‘We need to get organized.’”

So Mathews, a freelance writer, started Bed-Stuy Strong with nothing more than some bilingual flyers and a Slack channel. Within a day, 150 people had joined.

“The food pantries were in crisis and not set up to operate during lockdown,” Mathews said. “We started getting calls from people saying, ‘I’m out of food.’ It’s hard to convey how large it became.”

[Related: An Immigrant Founder Uses Food to Lift Up Her Latino Community]

In those early days of the pandemic, a parent with children and nothing to eat at home would call the hotline number. A volunteer would run out, buy and deliver groceries, and then a few people would pitch in money on Venmo to cover the cost. 

They received about 600 of these calls a day.

Now, Mathews said, there is a more efficient tracking system and a community fund with a reserve of cash from donors. They have also partnered with Brooklyn Packers, a Black-owned food delivery co-op, to buy bulk groceries to be distributed. To date, they’ve served more than 15,000 residents.

“Every dollar goes into a neighbor’s fridge,” said Mathews, who is originally from the state of Kerala in India. “So far we’ve distributed the equivalent of half a million dollars.”

Even with cities and businesses opening up again, demand has not abated — and there is still the looming crush of winter. Experts say families in colder regions will have to choose between “heat or eat” — deciding whether to use scant resources for utilities or food. 

“I stay shocked at the degree to which there has been no decrease [in demand] whatsoever to this day,” Mathews said. “We want to make sure people get through the winter.”

Humanity through Pantry Boxes

On a global scale, historically, world hunger has always been fueled by war and violence — and now there is the added strife and upheaval of a pandemic.

New York City residents opened their boxes from The Common Market to find fresh produce.
New York City residents opened their boxes from The Common Market to find fresh produce.

Earlier this month, the World Food Programme, a humanitarian aid organization based out of Rome, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to combat the hunger crisis. The Nobel committee said it wished to turn the eyes of the world on those “who live on the brink of starvation.” 

In 2019, 135 million people around the world suffered from acute hunger — the highest figures in years, according to experts.

Rachel Terry, national partnerships director at The Common Market, a nonprofit food distributor with hubs in Philadelphia, Atlanta and Houston, said she hopes this renewed attention “will really drive a national conversation about what access to good food really means.”

The Common Market, started by husband-and-wife duo Haile Johnston and Tatiana Garcia Granados, gets fresh farm groceries to universities, hospitals, childcare centers and other community organizations for a discounted price.

[Related: This Philadelphia Entrepreneur is Helping Fix a Broken Food System]

Since Covid-19 hit and many of these institutions closed, the nonprofit has pivoted to teaming up with different agencies and cities to deliver food to those who need it most.

It recently finished a seven-month, $6 million contract with the City of New York to pack and deliver more than 230,000 pantry boxes to address adult food insecurity, Terry said. The city purchased pre-made meals and pantry boxes composed of cheese, a fresh loaf of bread, black beans and about five fresh produce items. The city utilized the Taxi & Limousine Commission, which had seen a drop in ridership, to carry out the deliveries.

A woman from Queens, New York sent a heartbreaking note of gratitude to the organization.

“Her first thought was that someone actually wanted her to live,” Terry said. “Hearing directly from people about what it means to not open a box with processed sugary foods, but something fresh and nutritious — we’re giving humanity back to people through distribution and food access efforts.”

Supporting Marginalized Populations

Another pivot came in the form of Hamptons Community Outreach, which was originally a summer camp for underserved children in the Long Island, New York, area. Now, it has morphed into a meal delivery service with 10 volunteers.

“When Covid hit, I started to reach out to different communities and asked, ‘What do you need right now?’” said Marit Molin, a social worker who started the camp in 2018. “Everybody said, ‘We need food.’”

Molin raised $200,000 in 12 weeks from private donors and foundations to feed the elderly and special needs populations of Shinnecock Reservation in Southampton. She has been featured in local news outlets as well as Good Morning America, where she cast off the perception that everyone who lives and works in the tony area is wealthy.

“There are a lot of children of immigrants whose parents clean pools and cut lawns,” she said. 

[Related: A Brooklyn Bakeshop’s Sweet Milestone in a Sour Year]

She started ordering food from a rotating stable of restaurants and then delivered it to people in need. “I wanted to feed hungry people but also prevent unemployment among restaurant workers who are very often marginalized,” Molin said.

Aside from delivering groceries biweekly to the reservation, the nonprofit has expanded to provide mental health services, medical care, tutoring and even birthday parties for children.

While the situation is dire, these women-led grassroots efforts are trying to build what’s called “food resiliency” in communities that often suffer in silence.

“There’s a difference between crisis-based support and really long-term solutions,” said Mathews of Bed-Stuy Strong. 

The all-time-high levels of food insecurity “tell a two-fold story of economic devastation and the cost of the pandemic,” she said. But, she added, it also “tells the story of what ordinary people can do working collectively.”