With starvation rising, the Brooklyn Meals Pantries wish to increase earlier than Passover

Marcelino Cabrera, who lives in Sunset Park, lost his construction job shortly before the pandemic after being hit by a car on his way to work.

Still unemployed, he has been relying on a Borough Park pantry for the past six months to support his wife and three children.

“Everyone here is working really hard to make this possible,” said 41-year-old Cabrera, who was standing in front of the pantry on New Utrecht Avenue, holding a grocery bag and a box of fruit and vegetables. “I say thank God and all of you because this is a real help.”

The site is part of a network of pantries and soup kitchens operated by Masbia, a non-profit organization dedicated to caring for those in need.

Marcelino Cabrera, who lives in Sunset Park, picks up food for his family from the Masbia pantry in Borough Park. Ben Fractenberg / THE CITY

With demand remaining high for a year after the pandemic, Masbia, who works around the clock five days a week with two pantries in Brooklyn and one in Queens, is expanding its service capacity.

Last weekend, the nonprofit signed leases for two properties near the Midwood and Borough Park locations and is preparing to use them primarily as food storage locations.

“Opportunities are definitely the biggest factor here,” said Alex Rapaport, Executive Director of Masbia, saying he got a “crazy deal” due to the destruction of the commercial rental market from the pandemic.

Masbia Executive Director Alexander Rapaport oversees the distribution of food in the group's Borough Park pantry on February 16, 2021.

Masbia Executive Director Alexander Rapaport oversees the distribution of food in the group’s Borough Park pantry on February 16, 2021. Ben Fractenberg / THE CITY

The additional space will allow the nonprofit to purchase larger jobs in bulk and stretch funds, Rapaport said.

A 500% increase in demand

Masbia, which means “full” in Hebrew, works mainly with private donations.

Previously, food pallets were piled on sidewalks and the supply chain secured when storage space at Masbia’s facilities became scarce. The overflows and long lines weren’t a problem at the start of the pandemic when shops closed and the city huddled for the most part, he said.

But as the stores reopened and pedestrian traffic increased, the plumbing and sidewalk storage became disruptive.

In addition to Borough Park, Masbia will take over the business that sold hearing aids. A synagogue sits between the current Midwood location on Coney Island Avenue and the new property that used to be a clothing store.

The Masbia Pantry in Borough Park has made every effort to get enough groceries to run 24 hours a day.

Masbia’s pantry in Borough Park has been working to get enough groceries to run 24 hours a day. Ben Fractenberg / THE CITY

The expansion occurs as Masbia prepares for Passover, which runs from March 27 to April 4. Traditionally, it’s one of the busiest seasons of the pantry network, Rapaport said, and accounts for 25% of the annual prepandemic of charitable food distribution.

According to Rapaport, demand in Masbia’s pantries has increased by 500% since the pandemic began. As soon as food comes in, it goes out the door, he said.

“Public Order Failure”

Laura Feyer, a spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, has estimated that food insecurity affects 1.6 million people in the five boroughs, 400,000 more than before the pandemic.

“A couple of weeks ago I ordered a trailer load to each place with rice and oatmeal, and by the end of the week it was gone,” Rapaport said.

Masbia then “digitized the bread line” with the help of an app, with the help of which appointments can be planned in seven different languages.

The pantry at Masbia in Borough Park tries to make grocery collection planning as easy as possible.

The pantry at Masbia in Borough Park tries to make grocery collection planning as easy as possible. Ben Fractenberg / THE CITY

Now people come at their scheduled times. More seats are available at night when pedestrian traffic subsides and the line is less disruptive, Rapaport said. Ready meals can still be picked up without an appointment.

Hunger Free America CEO Joel Berg hailed Masbia’s expansion but said pantries are only a small part of tackling food insecurity.

“It is a massive public policy failure that charities even have to expand because we didn’t need them 50 years ago because people were paid more from a living wage,” said Berg.

Berg noted that a hunger crisis was well underway before COVID-19 hit, but the problem has been exposed and exacerbated in recent months.

“What the pandemic did is that people who were hungry got hungrier, poor people got poorer, and then people on the brink of poverty and hunger were put into hunger and poverty.”

“The people need it”

Juli Pineda has been coming into the pantry for seven months.

“It helped me a lot because I don’t have a job with the pandemic. So the food is good, ”said Pineda 38, who lives on Coney Island with her husband and three children. “People need it.”

Juli Pineda picks up groceries for her husband and three children in the pantry of Masbia Borough Park on February 16, 2021.

Juli Pineda picks up food from the pantry of Masbia Borough Park for her husband and three children on February 16, 2021. Ben Fractenberg / THE CITY

Pineda lost her job as a housekeeper and is encouraging others in need of food to come.

The food on offer comes from a variety of sources, including city and federal governments, as well as private donors.

Shimon Posen delivered boxes of bread to Masbias Borough Park on Tuesday. He said he drives around town picking up groceries near their expiration dates from schools and restaurants and then delivering them to more than 10 pantries a day.

Shimon Posen has been rescuing food and delivering it to pantries like Masbia in Borough Park for more than 25 years.

Shimon Posen has been rescuing food and delivering it to pantries like Masbia in Borough Park for more than 25 years. Ben Fractenberg / THE CITY

“There is a lot of food that goes in the trash and there is a lot of food that people can use,” Posen, who said he has been saving food for more than 25 years, told THE CITY. “All we need is matchmaking, the guy who gets it from point A to point B, and I try to do that as often as possible.”

He added, “Before you throw away food, think of poor people who have no food.”

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