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In New York City, a leader in food assistance keeps delivering

City Harvest, the nation’s largest food rescue operation, is helping people experiencing food insecurity

In the immediate wake of stay at home orders due to the coronavirus, New York City’s City Harvest  – the nation’s largest food rescue operation – saw food donations rise. The organization collects food that would otherwise be thrown out and distributes it to other partner organizations focused on feeding people who are experiencing food insecurity. Wholesalers donated fresh fruit, vegetables, meats, cheeses and other items to the organization, as they were no longer able to sell meat and produce to the city’s nearly 27,000 restaurants and caterers shutting their doors.

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Though this was a windfall for City Harvest and critical for the more than a million hungry New Yorkers the organization normally serves, CEO Jilly Stephens knew the initial surplus would be temporary. “The first thing our disaster feeding plan calls for is to start buying shelf-stable food, since we know that these items are harder to come by through donations,” she says. 

City Harvest relies on fresh food that goes unused to supply hundreds of NYC partner organizations, such as food pantries and soup kitchens. Closing restaurants, which constitute  another source of food for the organization, caused a ripple effect back to farmers who, with no buyers, cut back on fresh food production. Shelf-stable food, a major component of City Harvest’s disaster feeding plan, also became difficult to source. “A typical disaster is very local, but with the coronavirus, every organization in the country looks for large quantities of the same items,” Stephens says.

To counter this, City Harvest had to quickly reassess how it would support an estimated two million New Yorkers now facing food insecurity due to the coronavirus. The organization rescued and delivered nearly 81 million pounds of food by the end of its fiscal year on June 30, 2020—nearly 17 million more pounds than projected at the beginning of the year. According to Stephens, to meet the increased need they had to significantly increase their food purchasing budget: “We thought we’d need $200,000 to support our efforts in 2020. That number will likely be closer to $8 million.”

Stephens says City Harvest’s greatest need became obtaining funding so that it could keep buying food to meet rising demand. To that end, private support was critical. Stephens, says, “Bank of America, because of their decade-long partnership with us, was able to provide funding just two weeks after stay-at-home orders were issued.” Most of the group’s budget comes from private donations, such as Bank of America’s $1 million grant, part of a $100 million commitment to local community nonprofits, which is in addition to the $250 million in philanthropy the bank gives annually. 

The funding is also being used to cover the cost of increased labor needs. At the Queens facility, where food donations are typically packaged by a large network of volunteers, City Harvest hired about 40 temporary workers to address growing demand, drawing from a pool of laid-off restaurant employees. With the success of that program, Stephens says City Harvest expects to continue to supplement volunteers with part-time workers.

City Harvest’s food distribution network had to adjust overnight to get the food where it was needed most. The organization set up 24 emergency food distribution sites in cooperation with neighborhood organizations. At City Harvest’s 9 Mobile Markets where families normally would be able to browse donated food as they would at a farmer’s market, City Harvest is distributing pre-packed bags that include shelf-stable food as well as fresh produce. 

Though the adjustments have been challenging, Stephens is confident City Harvest will continue to provide for hungry New Yorkers. “Our routes continue, and the trucks are running every day,” she says.

As nonprofits adjust to addressing increased needs in their local communities, Bank of America is committed to supporting them. Learn more about the bank’s additional $100 million philanthropic commitment to more than 1,300 non-profits on the front lines, as well as the bank’s $250 million commitment to assisting local businesses.

Originally published 6/8/2020