Church’s Hot Meal Service to Resume

DSC_0110Meredith Hoffman Amy Ferrera, 5, enjoys a cupcake from the food pantry at Tompkins Square Park.

After a fire last November that destroyed their giant kitchen and drew national attention, Long Island-based Hope for the Future Ministries plans to begin serving hot meals again next month in Tompkins Square Park.

“We’ll have a grand reopening,” said Pastor Diane Dunn, who has been providing food and household items to people in the park for the past 22 years.

Since the fire, Pastor Dunn and her church have continued coming to the park on Wednesday evenings with groceries from the food bank, hot dogs and other donations from a neighboring restaurant. On Saturdays next month they will start serving full hot meals, everything from Salisbury steak to cake.

Over 200 people come each week to “the line,” in the park, with the seniors given priority to get their food first. But the faces on the “the line” have changed, she said.

“I’ve seen a change in the population who comes here—more middle class unemployed, who’ve run out of their unemployment,” Ms. Dunn said. “Numbers were down for a while and then when the recession hit—Boom! They increased.”

Peter Bentley, a young man in his twenties, worked at a kids’ camp until he became unemployed a few months ago.

“I just got a room at the YMCA right nearby,” he said, as he stood on line.

For more than two hours one recent evening, Ms. Dunn, an employee, and several volunteers handed out canned food, fresh fruit and vegetables, butter, and other items that they’d unloaded from two refrigerated vans. She said that it costs $800 a week to pay for gas for the vans – a sum that reflects the long commute from Long Island.

But Ms. Dunn is committed to feeding the poor in New York City. She grew up in Brooklyn and said that she decided to become a pastor when she befriended a homeless woman in Tompkins Square Park in 1987.

“This woman was screaming, ‘What do you know about what it’s like to be homeless?’ She was living in a tent in the park,” said Ms. Dunn. “I kept thinking in my heart I needed to do something about this.”

DSC_0091Meredith Hoffman Debbie Totten, a volunteer, serves food to the people who wait in line. Ms. Totten has been volunteering since 2001 when she had a heart attack that left her unable to work.

So she did.

Now, Pastor Dunn seems to know just about everyone in the park, and when she walked her dog after serving food she continued to offer help, including one man’s request for twine to tie boxes on his grocery cart.

“Sure, honey,” she said, sending him to a store across the street with a few dollars.

Christian Cloe, a native of Nigeria who owes months of rent on his Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment, has been coming to the line for three years. He visits other food pantries as well, but he said that they often lack Pastor Dunn’s touch.

“Diane has become part of the culture of homelessness and poverty,” Mr. Cloe said.