As the economic, health, and social costs of the pandemic spiraled across the five boroughs, New Yorkers launched initiatives to help their neighbors, communities, and the most vulnerable city residents. These efforts ranged from grass-roots mutual aid organizing and food drives to institutional responses by social service and government organizations. Social media became a powerful tool for neighbors helping neighbors, as New Yorkers built networks and organizations aimed at keeping each other safe, fed, and connected.
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[The Barrio Fridge shared donated food with the community]
Nicole Freezer Rubens
August 22, 2020
Courtesy of the photographer
Community refrigerators offering free food began appearing on New York’s streets in February. They proliferated as activists, many of them working with the organization A New World in Our Hearts, sought ways to address the food insecurity that affects one in four New Yorkers and was being deeply exacerbated by the pandemic.
In the words of the photographer, “This is one of several community refrigerators that have been started across the city to help combat food insecurity, reduce food waste, and bring communities together. Individuals and food suppliers donate for those in need to take the nutritious fare. I started to see a number of festive-looking refrigerators like this on my social media feed. This one grabbed my attention because of the great art installed with it. The fiber artists @naomirag and @makemorefresh spruced up the site with their cheerful and welcoming artwork and the artist @_dot.ny painted the refrigerator.”
“Food scarcity has always been an issue in New York City and the coronavirus impact and fallout has greatly increased the need to combat hunger. The pandemic has trickled down into every area of our lives. Reduction of hunger is another obstacle we need to face as a community.”
As of December, there were over 60 community fridges reported in the five boroughs.
[In the absence of city resources, volunteers from the community group Echoed Voices clean up their Greenpoint neighborhood]
Courtesy of the photographer
Mutual aid organizations, such as Echoed Voices, brought people together during the pandemic, not only to help each other and their neighborhoods, but also to build community during a time of social distancing.
As the photographer explains, “Christina Emilie Chaparro, Christian Chaparro, and Echoed Voices, their community group of ecological warriors, are weekly taking to the streets of their neighborhood to clean and raise awareness about public cleanliness and how it is important to see our streets as part of our home. During the COVID-19 crisis, Christina, a Greenpoint-based photographer, noticed the streets of her neighborhood were getting dirtier and dirtier. She initiated an individual public clean up and rapidly got noticed by her neighbors. I followed one of the weekly cleanups she organized with her partner, Christian.
“Here, in front of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, Christian shares insight into the effect that picking up plastic has on creating sustainable consciousness. This moment was very powerful because it showed how important it is to educate and share information about what we are doing and to get more knowledge about the problems we are facing while volunteering.
“These cleanups started not only because of the pandemic but also because of the lack of public responsibility at the beginning of it. With no one in the streets and no clear public implication in cleaning up neighborhoods, the streets and parks started to pile up with trash. This and a sudden awareness about the importance of others and community following days and weeks of isolation initiated public reactions and clear actions. These cleanups are only one example of multiple local actions that people took to bring back to life the real meaning of community and togetherness. The pandemic brought us back together and made us face our darkest problems.”
June 5, 2020
Courtesy Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies and Graham Windham
During the pandemic, millions of meals have been distributed to New Yorkers by nonprofits as well as by the government, funded by a combination of public and philanthropic dollars. One of these nonprofits is Graham Windham, which operates youth development and family support programs at 11 community-based sites in Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, serving close to 5,000 children and their families each year. This photo was taken outside of O.U.R Place, Family Enrichment Center in Hunts Point, the Bronx.
The organization explains “In this picture, Denise Carr, Family Advocate (Graham Windham employee), hands a free box of food to a community member. The food distribution event was a joint effort between the FEC and Graham’s Beacon afterschool program in Hunts Point. During this particular event over 100 families picked up food, which was provided by the Food Bank for NYC.
“During the spring and summer of 2020, food insecurity was one of the most often sited and most stressful challenges facing the families Graham serves. Consequently, we and our partner organizations moved quickly to make sure that the kids and families in our community could get groceries. Thanks to a partnership with the Food Bank for NYC, and funding from The Price Family Foundation, Columbia University Neighbors Food Relief Fund, the Tiger Foundation as well as individual donors, we were able to facilitate weekly food distributions—even doing some doorstep or curbside delivery for those who were quarantined or in high-risk populations."
[A meal from the local school and a loaf of sourdough bread]
April 25, 2020
Courtesy of the photographer
New York City schools became an important site of food distribution during the pandemic, not only for the many children who depended on school lunches but for any New Yorker who needed access to food.
In the words of the photographer, “Food insecurity is a fear-based anxiety that can overwhelm a parent. An anxious parent can find it difficult to have patience with and to enjoy their child. Parenting in the midst of poverty at times seems impossible. The school lunch program does more than provide nutrition to children; it provides peace of mind to overtaxed parents.
“While everyone knows poverty robs a child of their childhood, more than anything the lockdown taught me how poverty also robs a parent of the greatest gift of parenthood--the simple enjoyment of spending time with my child. When the lockdown first started, I was grateful for the extra time I got to spend with my daughter. I am a single mom and often only see her from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. (bedtime) on school days. During the lockdown, we enjoyed taking photography walks around the city together and documenting what we saw. Unfortunately, as a waitress, the lockdown also left me with less than $300 in my pocket.
“I have always parented in the midst of financial insecurity. There is constant mental math I must do every time a penny leaves my pocket. This, however, was the first time I experienced food insecurity. When I found out that NYC DOE cafeteria staff came to work five days a week at more than 400 schools to distribute ‘grab-and-go’ meals to anyone, children or adults, I decided to check it out. We walked to P.S. 32 in Brooklyn to get two lunches. This picture was taken in my kitchen and shows the contents of our lunch (with a failed loaf of bread in the background).”
[Members of the U.S. Army National Guard distribute food in Harlem]
April 15, 2020
Courtesy of the photographer
The food crisis grew in March, as New Yorkers lost employment, children lost access to free lunch, and vulnerable or homebound New Yorkers lost safe access to grocery stores. About half of the meals distributed under the city’s program Get Food NYC were distributed by the National Guard. As of August, the National Guard had distributed over 50 million meals to New Yorkers—many of these brought by taxi drivers. Drivers who were struggling to find fares during the stay-at-home orders were hired—initially at $15 an hour—to bring meals to homebound New Yorkers through the Driver Food Delivery program. As of September, an estimated 10,000 drivers were participating.
In the words of the photographer, “Among the many effects of COVID on New York City revealed by the pandemic is the food shortage for many New Yorkers. Seeing the National Guard and taxi and private car services team up to get food to New Yorkers showed, again, the resilience of New Yorkers to pull together for the greater good.
“This sense of putting the greater good ahead of personal resonated throughout the summer, spurred by the George Floyd protests, as people from all races and backgrounds came together to march for justice.”
[A food truck offering free Iftar meals since mosques were closed]
April 30, 2020
Courtesy Center for Brooklyn History
The photographer explains, “I took this picture at the corner of Newkirk Avenue and Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn. My neighborhood is sometimes known as ‘Little Pakistan’ and has a large Muslim community.
“I was struck by the creativity and the community spirit. This is a street food truck that was repurposed to provide free Iftar meals (after the day’s fast during Ramadan). It was sponsored by a variety of Muslim organizations as well as Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. As it says on the truck, COVID prevented people from sharing communal meals in mosques. The truck was also dedicated in memory to those who died from COVID.”
April 11, 2020
Courtesy of the photographer
This is part of a series documenting the volunteers who helped out with the overflow of dead at a local Muslim funeral home in Brooklyn.
In the words of the photographer, “I was riding by and saw what I thought looked like a homemade coffin standing by itself in between two refrigerator trucks. No one was there. Soon, a group of people came out and starting loading caskets into the truck. One of them explained to me that a group of volunteers had purchased the trucks two weeks ago to help out the Muslim funeral service that ran out of space for the dead being brought to them in this horrible time here in the city.
“In Muslim tradition, as in Jewish tradition, the dead need to be buried immediately. But with the coronavirus, families are desperate and the funeral homes are overwhelmed. Many do not have the money right now for a proper burial. Volunteers are trying to help families in their communities in this terrible time. It’s not uncommon to see refrigerated trucks all over NYC functioning as mobile morgues. Most are funded by the city—but some—as in this case—are provided by private volunteer endeavors. Though I’ve passed a lot of these trucks, this was the first time I saw the caskets and caught a glimpse inside the trucks.
“I thank the man who kindly explained everything to me. There is an Arabic prayer that is said for the dead: Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un. My understanding is that this translates as: ‘To Allah we belong and to Him we return.’ I rode past the trucks after nightfall. The quiet and stillness tried to tell me something. I paused for some long moments trying to pay my respects and understand what it had to say.”