EAST NEW YORK — On a Saturday morning in late June the line at the food pantry at the Brooklyn Sports Club in Spring Creek Towers, commonly known as Starrett City, was trailing around the block and doubling back in the parking lot. Susie Williams was near the entrance of the Sports Club, directing volunteers as they ferried pre-assembled bags of non-perishables -including pasta and peanut butter – out of the building and onto designated tables. Then, they went back inside, so visitors could retrieve their groceries in safety. Many who had come brought carts and reusable bags; that Saturday, there were economy-sized bags of pet food available as well.
Spring Creek Towers is a self-contained private development of large apartment towers with almost 6,000 rental units, home to some 15,000 residents, about half of whom are Black, a third White, and 20% Hispanic according to the latest Census data. It accounts for most of the 11239 ZIP code and has one of the highest recorded COVID fatality rates in the country. According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, at least 88 people have died of COVID here since Mid-March, a per-capita fatality rate of 709 deaths per 100,000 residents.
Demand for the food pantry has grown significantly since the pandemic shut down the city in mid-March and distribution now takes place twice a week rather than twice a month, Ms. Williams, the founder and director of Sisters with Purpose which organizes pantry told Bklyner.
Ms. Williams was very obviously the woman in charge, unphased by the hugeness of the proceedings, snapping quickly to attention – too many people had managed to wander into the receiving area, creating a bottleneck of some very elderly Russian speakers.
“Sir!” Ms. Williams said sharply, “too close!”
“You need to be with your wife!” said another volunteer, “Is that your wife?”
The man being addressed shook his head and took a step back. One of the women he’d arrived with asked him a question in Russian, and he moved both of his hands apart to indicate space; her brow furrowed, as though in disagreement. Another woman, more physically frail than the rest, staggered slightly, and everyone reached out to grab her; the bottleneck was now a swaying human Anemone.
Ms. Williams and her volunteers brought bags of food for everyone. Further confusion ensued when one of the elderly neighbors indicated that they wanted a bag of pet food. “Cat or Dog?” Ms. Williams asked, “Which one?” The neighbor offered no response, unable to answer.
The incident was an unsettling reminder of the challenges Ms. Williams and her colleagues faced at the height of the pandemic and continue to face every time they bring food – managing crowds and communications in an area with many elderly immigrants.
Daisy, 74, was waiting in line for food. A snappy dresser in a sunhat and a white sleeveless blouse, Daisy is retired and lives off a fixed income. Asked if she’d been afraid during the pandemic, she said, of course, she was 74.
“I walk everywhere,” Daisy said. “That’s my secret.”
That changed during the pandemic.
“I didn’t leave my apartment for 8 weeks,” Daisy said, only venturing out a handful of times during the lockdown, usually to Ms. Williams’s pantry.
“This is nothing,” said Daisy’s acquaintance, who preferred to remain anonymous. “One time I was number 297, and there were still people behind me.”
“It’s not that bad,” Daisy said. “It’s nice to be able to see people again.”
“Some people get here at 6 in the morning.” Her acquaintance said.
Spring Creek Towers’ Public Safety Officers, the private security force that patrols the complex, have tried to discourage people from waiting in front of the pantry once they receive a ticket with their number in line to pick up food, but they do anyway. Some don’t understand that it will save their place in line, others don’t trust it to. The pantry ran out of groceries close to noon after giving out bags of groceries to 197 people, with dozens left still waiting for food.
Sisters With Purpose is entirely volunteer-run, and most of its staff have full-time jobs elsewhere. When Starrett City was New York’s sickest neighborhood, and the shelves of its corner stores and groceries were barren, Sisters With Purpose was perhaps the only resource keeping hundreds of destitute and potentially infected people from heading out into greater Brooklyn in search of food.
The danger they’ve faced only stands to increase in coming months. The second wave of Coronavirus has not yet broken, and months of lockdown and deaths have left New York’s hardest-hit neighborhood far more financially and psychologically vulnerable to the pandemic than it was in Mid-March. Before the pandemic, the median household income here was $27,000 a year; without a voucher, rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the complex starts at 1,500 a month. The economic realities of this community do not favor staying indoors.
Prior to the pandemic, Ms. Williams’s pantry was ‘client-choice’, meaning it was set up to resemble a real grocery store. She liked doing the pantry this way; it was a kinder and more dignified approach for her visitors, and it also kept things efficient; Ms. Williams and her colleagues could arrive at the Brooklyn Sports Club at eight and have the pantry up and running by nine. Since the pandemic began, however, Sisters With Purpose has had to preassemble groceries for every visitor while also tripling the scale of their operations. Running the pantry has not only become dangerous since the pandemic; it’s also become a lot more work.
“In April, the numbers were rising, you got to remember, there’s a lot of preparation.” Ms. Williams told us, “You don’t know who’s had it and who hasn’t, and you’re packing bags twelve hours a day. You got to pack the bags, you have to sort them all. Not all the food is good, you got to sort through it all. So literally we were spending 12 hours the day before, just getting ready.” Sisters with Purpose get the food Food Bank for New York City, New York Cares and the Emergency Food Assistance Program, Food Bank for New York City, New York Cares and the Emergency Food Assistance Program.
It wasn’t just the deepening recession that was driving up the need for food; many pantries in the area were shutting down as well.
“A lot of these places that have food pantries, they’re churches, they’re older.” Ms. Williams said, of pantries closing. “It wasn’t that they didn’t want to, it’s that they couldn’t. A lot of people got sick and passed away.”
Further compounding the area’s hardship was the shortage of food and other necessities in the nearby grocery and corner stores, which were far more severe – and occurred for much longer- then it did elsewhere. People who had previously relied on other forms of food assistance, such as SNAP benefits, now found themselves dependent on Ms. Williams’s pantry. By the beginning of April, Spring Creek Towers was experiencing multiple deaths a day, and the line outside of Ms. Williams’s pantry was often more than 300 people long; Ms. Williams’s visitors often had to wait five hours, in inclement April weather, just to get a bag of food to last the week.
Public Safety Officers were dispatched to work as the pantries security detail; but with hundreds of desperate people clamoring for food and supplies outside the Brooklyn Sports Club on Tuesdays and Saturdays, the whole enterprise was now fraught with enormous peril. The Emergency room at Brookdale Medical Center, the nearest hospital – which has a maximum capacity of 50 – was regularly inundated with 160+ sick people a day; its Doctors were working 18-hour shifts, seven days a week, with PPE in short supply. If an older person had fallen and hurt themselves while waiting in line, or a fight had broken out, it would add to an already dire situation.
“If you’re doing the pantry,” Ms. Williams told me, “you’re there four days a week, and you’re packing the bags together for a long time. Then you’re going and dealing with all these people at the pantry. You just have to treat people like they have it [COVID-19].”
But when asked if the realization that this work was dangerous made her want to quit, Ms. Williams was emphatic. “Where are people going to get food? I would go to the supermarkets and the shelves are bare.” Ms. Williams said. “ Where are they going to get baby formula, diapers, incontinence products, pet food? It was crucial that we stayed open at all costs, and we knew it was time to step up.” Then, a little later, “This is what we’ve been doing all along.”
Ms. Williams is a woman of enormous personal conviction; in the face of this virus, she and her colleagues will not relent. But they need all the assistance they can get. As austerity looms, financial support is vital.
Ms. Williams has a donated space in Bed-Stuy in need of renovation before it can be used; if it were renovated, she estimates she could feed an additional 1,500 households in the area. Volunteers with home-renovation and contracting experience are greatly needed now, as are donations of quality appliances.
So are Russian speaking volunteers. Donations of healthy non-perishables and long-lasting produce will help Spring Creek residents fortify their bodies and minds against the onslaught of this virus. Here are some examples; cabbage, apples, citrus, potatoes, carrots, squash; and as previously mentioned, donations of pet food, baby formula, and incontinence products are invaluable. Additional volunteers would increase the pace at which people can be served, and provide additional support in case of an emergency.
Most of all, they need all of us to see and support this tight-knit community as it continues to endure so much death and hardship.