Brooklyn Relief Kitchen Feeds Those Hit Hardest By COVID-19

Brooklyn Relief Kitchen Feeds Those Hit Hardest By COVID-19
Meals ready for distribution. Courtesy of Paul Carney.

Andy Wandzilak can’t not feed people.

Former co-owner of Two Boots Park Slope with his wife, Piper, as well as a caterer at Kings Theatre, Wandzilak had launched the volunteer-led Hurricane Sandy Relief Kitchen back in 2012 when the storm devastated large swathes of the city. Armed with dozens of volunteers and an outpouring of donor support, the team was able to serve over 200,000 meals to those affected by the disaster. Now, eight years later, Wandzilak saw that the city needed them again.

“We were sitting around for three months not doing anything, and there was a certain guilt of not helping out in a crisis as we had before,” Wandzilak said. “We’re a little bit older now, we weren’t able to go, volunteer – we’re above the ages of 50.”

After Sandy, the organization had set up shop at the Old First Reformed Church in Park Slope, where they prepared and packed up meals for distribution. That same church has welcomed them back in again, functioning as both a headquarters and a work space, and providing financial support through their status as a 501c3 nonprofit organization. It was the only push Wandzilak and his team members needed.

“When we were able to get back in the church, we jumped at it,” he said. “Whether we’re selling the food to people or giving it to people who are hungry, we like to feed people, and the good feeling that gives people.”

Now functioning under a new title – Brooklyn Relief Kitchen (BRK) – the group has already managed to supply struggling New Yorkers with over 5,000 meals since they began on June 2nd.  Collecting thousands of pounds of fresh produce and pantry items from agencies like Council of People’s Organization (COPO) and GetFoodNYC, BRK has supplied hot meals and food to four different partnering organizations: CHiPS soup kitchen in Park Slope; Camp Friendship, also in Park Slope; Workers Justice Project; and St. Marks United Methodist Church in Flatbush. They also operate a food drive in front of Old First Reformed Church every weekday from 10am to 2pm, where they collect donations of canned and dry goods. Their volunteer base is composed of everyone from restaurant industry colleagues, many of whom helped out after Sandy, to college kids trying to stay busy during the summer.

BRK volunteers and church members distribute meals at St. Marks United Methodist Church. Courtesy of Paul Carney.

COVID-19 has created a very different landscape from post-Sandy New York, Wandzilak explained. New Yorkers face illness as well as unemployment, lost wages, and even eviction. Many of the people hit hardest by the pandemic are also service industry workers, a large percentage of whom are undocumented immigrants, and therefore ineligible for unemployment benefits. These are the people that BRK serves.

“We help to provide food security for these people so hopefully their lives will get better,” Wandzilak said. “They don’t have to be worried about where they’re getting their next meal.”

To complicate matters further, with hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers unemployed or underemployed, donations haven’t exactly been flooding in – though they have been able to raise over $8,500 through their GoFundMe, and additional funds through individual donors. With social distancing measures in place, as well, it’s been difficult to operate at scale – while the team currently boasts 50 volunteers, only 12 can work in the space at once. After Sandy, they would have had easily 30 people preparing and packing meals at one time, Wandzilak said.

Yet another challenge is the supply chain issue – Wandzilak mentioned that orders sometimes show up with items missing, and getting hold of PPP like masks and nitrile gloves has proved a major challenge.

Still, they’ve managed to make a difference.

“The partnership came at a time when we most need it,” Reverend Morais G. Quissico of St. Marks United Methodist Church told us. “After this violent coming of COVID-19 that put so many people unemployed, drained away the people’s resources, and so forth – we really saw the need to start doing something.” They had almost no resources, however – just the small amount of leftover food donated to them by another Methodist church in Bushwick. It wasn’t enough.

The community the church serves have faced serious challenges, the Reverend said, both before and during the crisis – everything from crime to health issues to drug abuse. “All kinds of trouble that you can think of.” It was painful to watch these people go away with nothing, he said.

Wandzilak called one day. “Out of the sky,” the Reverend said, laughing.

Piper Wandzilak, left, and a volunteer at the Brooklyn Relief Kitchen food drive in front of Old First Reformed Church. Courtesy of Paul Carney.

So far, with BRK’s support, the church has been able to provide hot meals and pantry items to an average of 200 families twice a week – a dramatic increase from before, when they could only serve around 20 families. The Reverend said that he hopes to continue their partnership with BRK, even once the crisis has ended.

Like the rest of New York, and the country, Wandzilak isn’t sure what will happen in the coming months. The city has entered Phase 3 of reopening, but that doesn’t mean things will go back to normal, he said. “There’s still going to be tens of thousands of workers out of work.” If restaurants reopen at only 50 percent capacity, he believes, 50 percent of restaurant workers won’t have any work. “That’s a lot of people in New York.”

BRK is welcome at the Old First Reformed Church through the end of August, when the church’s programs will start back up again and they’ll need the space back. After that, BRK will look for a new home – they have no plans of stopping anytime soon, especially since, Wandzilak said, he doesn’t see the need for food decreasing anytime soon. They hope to establish themselves as an official relief kitchen, he said, and to keep it going year-round.

“I think we’re happy to keep doing what we’re doing.”