For years as a chef and restaurateur, I would grind out hours on the line, take late-night inventory, call in Sunday morning orders with farmers and basically work 24/7 to make sure we put out the best food on every plate in my restaurants in Ithaca, New York.
In 2008, I sold my restaurants and spent the last dozen years — across three continents, two national capitals, and now on the front lines of fighting food insecurity in New York City — focused on fixing our complex and inequitable food system every day.
The West Side Campaign Against Hunger
Once the pandemic hit, in a matter of days, we shifted our 25-year-old free grocery store model — serving 22,000 customers and offering consumer choice — to a streetside, pre-bagged, farmers market-style set up to ensure staff and customer safety and continue to bring healthy food to New Yorkers in need.
Leading the West Side Campaign Against Hunger since 2017, I thought the craziness of my restaurant years were behind me. We thoughtfully planned this fiscal year, and the team was beginning the implementation of our five-year plan — building our systems and focusing on massive growth around the city to increase access to healthy food and supportive services for all New Yorkers while pushing the sector forward to a more dignity-focused approach to this work.
The year has been driven by innovation — a new fundraising event, Plentiful Plates, a jazz concert at Tavern on the Green, proved we could fundraise outside our 86th Street building and engage a new network of supporters. We expanded our collective purchasing pilot network across the city with other larger emergency food providers. We built partnerships with hospital networks, all while continuing to run our 25-year-old grocery store. And then, Covid-19 happened and food and hunger amplified — and emergency food providers became more vital than ever.
Chef pandemic life
I am fortunate. I ride my bicycle each day down along the Hudson from Washington Heights to the Upper West Side, watching those cherry blossoms turn and seeing the beginning of spring. But now, it’s all so different. Just a month ago, I took my 2-year-old daughter with me each day as she was in daycare in the building where I work. I started each day with my daughter — and it truly was our cherished time.
Now I am riding solo, coming home each afternoon to fill in for our closed daycare and of course, making sure we have healthy home-cooked meals. My wife, who is a professor of epidemiology at Columbia, then starts her workday. While our days, nights, and weekends are a blur, I cannot complain. We are employed, we are working to help the community, and we have each other.
Like many families, we are doing the best to split the workload, but my wife remains the primary caretaker of our daughter as I lead a team that is essential personnel; I go to work most days while she leads in taking care of our daughter. Looking back to our lives before the pandemic, never did I think the luxury of riding my bike, my work, daycare, grocery delivery, or transportation would be deemed so vital.
Before WSCAH could even start adjusting our operations to meet the needs of our community, we had a virus scare, forcing us to close down the entire building and hire a professional cleaning service to perform a three-day disinfecting of premises.
After that, we moved services to the street level to serve our customers, and we quickly saw a massive influx of new faces in need: the faces of New York’s essential workers. Though we gained new customers, in the same month we had a 50 percent drop in visitation by seniors due to illness, self-isolation, and fear. So again we innovated and built a delivery model to get food to our most vulnerable older adult customers.
With so many low-income New Yorkers getting sick, we also partnered with Bellevue Hospital to make sure every discharged patient (1,750 a week) received a grocery box with two days of healthy food to help get people back on track.
With so many low-income New Yorkers getting sick, we also partnered with Bellevue Hospital to make sure every discharged patient (1,750 a week) received a grocery box with two days of healthy food to help get people back on track. To keep everyone safe, our social-service team shifted all benefits, screenings, intakes, and follow-ups to a virtual model. We suspended our Culinary Pathways training program, shut down our clothing closet, and told all 1,700 of our amazing volunteers to stay home.
Continuing to safely strengthen our community
We have spent tens of thousands of dollars on equipment and protective gear to make sure we can safely and efficiently distribute food, pay additional staff, and bring in stress-reduction support and coaches for team leaders. WSCAH has also created front-line staff rotations to provide them extra time at home.
WSCAH, like many frontline organizations, is seeing massive support from many sustaining donors, as well as an incredible number of new supporters. The dollars raised are unprecedented for our small organization. As we cancel our spring lunch fundraiser, we’re forcing a change in engagement with donors. Yet we are seeing exponential growth in the number of online donors. But as many in the poverty sector know all too well, the dollars roll in months after a tragedy — but the long-term needs for our communities will grow in the months and years after the initial funds dry up. So as donations continue to flood in, we have quickly moved straight back to our five-year plan with a renewed focus on implementing big-picture changes. We refuse to let a virus slow down the march of progress to a more equitable food system.
Hunger on the rise
The emergency-feeding sector will continue to see an increasing need month on month, well into 2021, due to the economic downturn and the deeper scars it will inflict upon food-insecure households. This will lead to an increase in demand for social services, closures of financially unstable emergency food providers, and added pressure for the sector to work in concert to support the community through city-state advocacy, supply-chain management, and technology usage for customer engagement.
This pandemic has forced WSCAH to truly separate organizational myth from mission: We have already pivoted our operations and do all that is necessary to help fulfill it.
As I see my team’s efforts each day, I look back to those long nights on the line in my restaurant kitchens when we were in the groove. The prep work was completed, the customers kept coming in, yet there was calm in the kitchen. That’s what we are seeing here today on the front lines: Emergency feeding providers and their teams taking care of the community during a pandemic as they have done each and every day for decades.
The community we serve has known and felt isolation and hunger well before this pandemic. Our job at WSCAH, and my job as a chef, is to help force a future food system that is, like our WSCAH team, purpose-built to feed and nourish our community.
I can only hope that with the push of the pandemic, we can actually begin to not just decrease social isolation and decrease gaps in the toilet paper supply chain but increase access for our community to healthy food and supportive services in ways that benefit our customers’ needs and desires.
Chef Greg Silverman is the executive director of the West Side Campaign Against Hunger.