St. Mark’s Food Pantry Reopens

St. Mark's Food PantryMeghan Keneally The food pantry has reopened.

St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery started its annual food pantry last week, providing much needed food options for homeless and hungry in the East Village.

While there are two existing soup kitchens that provide hot meal options throughout the week, St. Mark’s is the only food pantry that is open mid week, allowing visitors to bring home fresh produce and non perishables so their supplies last till the weekend.

“There just aren’t enough services in this area, and people slip through the cracks,” said the Rev. Winnie Varghese of St. Mark’s.

After a previous relationship with Trader Joe’s ended in late 2009 due to rising costs on the supermarket’s side, Ms. Varghese partnered up with GreenMarket last year and they agreed to donate any remaining produce from the farmer’s market that they hold in the church square on Tuesdays. The food pantry at St. Mark’s will run every Wednesday at 6 p.m. and they hope to continue it through the winter if funding allows.

The pantry caters to people who have access to kitchens and can cook the produce, as opposed to those who would need hot meals that the church is unable to provide.

“For me, this is about trying to keep people in their apartments,” Ms. Varghese said. “We have a lot of people who aren’t homeless, who have apartments, but just have to make difficult choices. When you look at the list of bills that have to be paid, rent is first, then its usually a choice between electricity or water, and then food is always the last on the list so they aren’t able to get fresh produce.”

The increased financial variety of food pantry and soup kitchen attendees is being seen throughout the city.

Fresh ProduceMeghan Keneally Produce at the pantry.

“All services are seeing people who never had to go before and are trying to keep up with their expenses, including the unemployed, underemployed, and working poor,” said Leslie Gordon, director of programs at City Harvest which provides food to a number of charities and soup kitchens in the city. City Harvest supports six other programs in and around the East Village but is not associated with St. Mark’s.

The Bowrey Mission, which serves three meals a day and is a shelter, receives much of the attention on the issue in the area, and gets a food delivery from City Harvest every day. Matt Krivich, director of operations at the Bowrey Mission, thinks that the new pantry at St. Mark’s addresses one of the problems in the area.

“We always have enough food for everyone, and we never really need to turn people away, so it’s not so much being able to give people hot meals,” Mr. Krivich said. “People who might be food insecure- who can afford their rent, but rents are going up so they don’t have enough money to pay for food- would be the ones who need the help from pantries.”

Of the nine shelter and food programs in the East Village, only four are completely open to the public and do not require placement from the Department of Homeless Services. St. Mark’s is the only food pantry of the four, and judging by the speed that the food disappeared Wednesday night, there is an underserved mid-week market.

All of the fresh produce and bread at St. Mark’s comes from Tuesday’s GreenMarket, so the variety depends greatly on the season.

“Last week we had a lot of kale, and what are you going to do with that?” Ms. Varghese said, though she said as the season progresses there will be more variety. Yesterday there were snap peas, lettuce, onions, zucchini and squash.

A Volunteer EffortMeghan Keneally Dallwyn Merck volunteers at the pantry.

The crowd has increased slightly between the first and second weeks at St. Mark’s, though there were still only 15 attendees Wednesday night. Ms. Varghese hopes to incorporate educational demonstrations at future pantries because the neighborhood’s ethnic diversity causes some cultural food barriers.

“A lot of our communities are Chinese or Ukranian and at one of the pantries last year we had a lot of tomatoes- really beautiful, ripe tomatoes- and they were like ‘Huh?’” she said.

“We’re not a food desert like the South Bronx, but providing good food, nutritious food: that feels really good,” she added.