A food pantry on wheels

The West Side Campaign Against Hunger offers healthy food to low-income residents in a new outreach project


Lincoln Square neighbors try out WSCAH’s new mobile pantry.  Photo: Leslie Gersing

The nation’s oldest supermarket-style food pantry is going mobile. A new mini-mart on wheels will offer low-income residents fresh, healthy food in Northern Manhattan and Bronx communities at the greatest risk of hunger.

The Mobile Food Pantry is the latest outreach project of the 39-year-old West Side Campaign Against Hunger. WSCAH staff, local elected officials and social service providers formally launched the customized refrigerated van on Tuesday, May 15 at Goddard Riverside at Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center on West 65th Street. Volunteers helped eligible neighbors select fresh fruit and vegetables, dairy, grains and canned proteins.

There’s already a waiting list.

“It’s allowing people to do exactly what every citizen in America does these days: getting food delivered,” said Greg Silverman, WSCAH’s executive director. “We want to make sure people have the same dignity as everyone else in the community, so we want to bring healthy, affordable, flavorful food to people, where they live, learn and play.”

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WSCAH Executive Director Greg Silverman thanks Upper West Siders and community and government agencies for the 4-year drive to get the mobile pantry on the road. Photo: Leslie Gersing

WSCAH operates a food pantry and social service hub from the basement of The Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew on West 86th Street. Last year, it distributed nearly 1.5 million pounds of food to clients, including working families with children and undocumented immigrants. Clients must prove need for assistance, live in New York City, and have a place to prepare and cook food. They shop the grocery aisles, stocked with produce, meats and other nutritious staples. They also volunteer, get job training, and even sit on the board. Many travel from as far away as Northern Manhattan and the Bronx. But growing numbers of seniors — and others with mobility issues — have trouble making the trip. WSCAH dreamed of bringing the pantry to the people.

Council Member Helen Rosenthal recalls how the community joined forces with WSCAH four years ago, to make it happen. “I remember saying to some of my friends at West Side Campaign Against Hunger, is there some way we could get out into other districts? That would let other people know.” Supporters advocated for the project and shepherded it through a rigorous budget process. During the 2014-2015 round of Participatory Budgeting, Rosenthal’s Council District 6 voted to provide $250,000 to build a mobile pantry.


Council Members Helen Rosenthal and Mark Levine check out WSCAH’s new mobile pantry, which serves clients at Levine’s office in Harlem.  Photo: Leslie Gersing

Test-runs started last October, with staff in a rental van distributing over 150,000 pounds of food to more than 3,000 households. Now, the official mobile truck hits the road four days a week, serving clients at 17 partner organizations. That includes students and young adults taking classes at the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corp. in Washington Heights. “Sometimes people have to make choices between continuing to study with the goal of promoting their careers or continuing to work in more dead end jobs,” said NIMC’s Sara Chapman. “If they’re able to not have make that decision, because they have food on the table, that means they can stay in the program.”

The Food Bank for New York City says more than 1.3 million New York City residents, or 14.9 percent, are food insecure — meaning they lack reliable access to sufficient amounts of affordable, nutritious food. That includes nearly 1 in 5 children. While the improved economy has reduced demand for food assistance, it says, those still getting help are falling farther behind.

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WSCAH’s mobile pantry delivers fresh food and high-quality staples to some of NYC’s most  under-served communities.  Photo: Leslie Gersing

New York City Director of Food Policy Barbara Turk called WSCAH a “superstar” for expanding beyond the Upper West Side. “This pantry is going to allow WSCAH to bring food to neighborhoods that are severely underserved and under-supplied,” she said.

Back at Lincoln Square, area resident Celso Ruiz filled his basket with groceries. Speaking in Spanish, he called the mobile pantry a “wonderful” idea “because it helps poor people.”


With “Participatory Budgeting,” New Yorkers Decide How to Spend Funds

By Leslie Gersing, Producer, Video Editor | May 1, 2017 | runs 1:46

On April 25, 2017, New York City Council member Helen Rosenthal announced the winners of projects to be funded with $1.27 million, as a result of voting by her constituents in the Participatory Budgeting (PB) process. See my companion print article in the West Side Rag, April 29, 2017.

For more information on Participatory Budgeting in New York City, visit http://council.nyc.gov/pb/participate/ or @PB_NYC on Twitter.


Frank McCourt High School student Austin Garcia (left), with his teacher Daniele Gates. Frank McCourt received funding for tech upgrades.

By Leslie Gersing
It’s like Sim City with real money.
Locals decided to spend more than a million bucks for library renovations, tech equipment, air conditioning and playground renovations at four schools on the Upper West Side.
The results were announced at The Center for West Park on April 25 at Council Member Helen Rosenthal’s Town Hall for District 6, which includes Central Park, Lincoln Square, northern Clinton and the Upper West Side.
The projects were chosen through participatory budgeting — democracy at the grass roots. Starting last year, numerous cultural, educational, security and other improvement projects were researched and debated for their worthiness, subjected to feasibility studies and budgeted. Any district resident or student, 14 and up, was eligible to vote for their top five choices. Eleven made the ballot during voting from March 27 through April 2.

                                     People voting for projects.

Four projects, at a total cost of $1.27 million, received the most votes, and will be part of the New York City Council Budget. Rosenthal allocated the extra $270,000 from her district budget to cover the overage. They are:

•Library Upgrades for P.S. 166 The project includes work to enlarge the library and creation of a new reading space at P.S. 166, 132 W. 89th St. Cost: $295,000 (1834 votes)

•Air Conditioning for P.S. 9 and Center School Gym Installation of a split system air conditioning system in the gymnasium shared by P.S. 9 and the Center School at 100 W. 84th St. Cost: $400,000 (1398 votes)

•Technology Upgrades at Frank McCourt High School including 11 new Smart Boards and 30 laptop computers with a cart, for use at Frank McCourt H.S. at 145 W. 84th St. Cost: $125,000 (1310 votes)

•Schoolyard Renovation at P.S. 84 Renovation of the playground, converting the asphalt to synthetic turf at P.S. 84 Schoolyard, the Sol Bloom Playground at 32 W. 92nd St. Cost: $450,000 (1304 votes)

During the last day of voting on April 2, volunteer Mark Diller said, “Every council member has a certain amount of money that they’re allowed to spend in the community. And Helen and a few other council members have taken $1 million of that and – capital things, projects and equipment and things – and made it available for the public to propose ideas and then to select among those ideas, which ones will actually get funded.”
At Frank McCourt High School on West 84th Street, 15 juniors and seniors got to experience participatory budgeting up close. Their class took part in all aspects of the process — from the initial development and research of potential projects, to serving on committees that short-listed finalists.
Austin Garcia, an 18-year old senior going to Hunter College next year, said: “It basically just helped me work with people and be more of a better asset in terms of doing group work with people.”
Garcia was pleased voters approved the McCourt High School project for smart boards, computers and other tech gear, which are needed to replace aging and broken equipment. His teacher Daniele Gates was happily surprised about the win, after losing out last year even though the entire student body voted in person. But she doubted there was any special favoritism among the class members. “They were super objective,” she said. “They were all working on different projects, so they weren’t invested in the project they were working on.”
New York City introduced participatory budgeting in 2011. This year, 31 of New York’s 51 city council districts took part during the 2016-2017 cycle, each agreeing to spend at least $1 million in the process. According to the City Council, 28 city council districts took part during the prior cycle, with 67,000 New Yorkers voting to fund $38 million in capital projects.
While many people laud the “small-d” democracy of the process, others are critical of asking voters to decide to spend council districts’ tax dollars on schools, roads, and other public services that should be funded by government agencies. In a recent New York Post op-ed, Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, called New York’s participatory democracy a “sham,” and said, “the exercise points out the city’s failure to spend money wisely, to an absurd degree.”
Rosenthal’s office said 3,111 residents voted for their favorite community initiatives this year, compared to 2,167 last year. While that’s a 43% increase, it’s still a small portion of eligible voters in the district — and comparable, to rising, but continued low levels of participation citywide. Rosenthal urged her Town Hall audience to sign up for her emails at HelenRosenthal.com to stay informed about the process.
Teacher Daniele Gates says more people might vote if ballots were mailed, or more attention were focused on online voting, or ballot locations set up where residents shop, such as grocery stores. But she has no doubt about the value of the class for her students. “They see the impact of participation. I think that a lot of people don’t engage in the process because their voice doesn’t matter and they have first-hand evidence that their vote and their voice matters.”

Photos by Leslie Gersing.