Food Charity: Yorkville Common Pantry

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[Photographs: Faye Leong]

As I walked up 109th Street looking for Yorkville Common Pantry, I spotted it immediately. Hungry New Yorkers were lined up all the way down the sidewalk, hoping for a food assistance package.

Yorkville Common Pantry (YCP) is New York City's largest community-based food pantry and is designed to ensure that all New Yorkers have access to balanced and nutritious meals. The program, like most non-profits, is highly dependent on the support of its volunteers. There are both on-site and off-site opportunities to use all helping hands, whether or not you have the time or means to physically make it to the YCP headquarters in Harlem. Most tasks center around managing the pantry, or running the YCP Hot Meal program which serves hot meals every day of the week.


I went to YCP on a Friday morning to work a shift in the beating heart of the program: the pantry headquarters. Now imagine your own pantry, and then expand it by about 5,000 times. This pantry was massive, impeccably organized (much like a grocery store), and stocked to the brim with a variety of nutritious foods (piles of carrots, potatoes, boxes of milk, cereal, granola bars, fridges full of meat, cans of soup—you name it).

After I wandered the aisles of the pantry of my dreams, I was directed to an assembly line of volunteers to pre-pack pantry bags for distribution to those people in line who I had passed earlier. Each week YCP drafts up a well-balanced menu to constitute each food package. This week's included: Corn Flakes, Triscuits, peas, skim milk, kidney beans, whole wheat pasta, peanut butter, gourmet Ritter Sports chocolates (!), and more. The quality of the products is impressive, and for the most part, it's all pretty healthy food.


But what I found most striking at YCP was not the pantry size or high-quality of the food, but the organization's efficiency. They feed 1,800 hungry families per week. Volunteer coordinator Gladys Oritz, a vibrant and warm (and busy-bodied!) woman, is the mastermind behind this machine that churns out nutritious meals to so many hungry New Yorkers. Almost every task (from packing food to breaking down poultry) was organized into some kind of assembly line, maximizing the output and speed at which we could assist the long line of people waiting for food packages.


The volunteers were quite an eclectic mix. I worked the assembly line with a group of girls from a literacy program called Jumpstart; a few high school students working on a senior project (which required them to volunteer at a non-profit every day for three weeks); a group of boys who come with their church twice a week to do some heavy lifting; and a man from the neighborhood who has volunteered at YCP almost every day since he retired.


While they all came from different organizations and for different reasons, almost all of them responded to my question, "What do you enjoy about volunteering at YCP in particular?" with a comment about the efficiency of the organization. Some liked that they were told what to do, instead of being left to flail in pantry chaos. Others appreciated that their time was being maximized. And it's true—as part of the food package assembly line, I was so busy and "in the zone" with my designated task that I completely lost track of time.

Before I knew it, three hours had passed, hundreds of packages had been assembled and distributed, and hundreds of families had been fed.

Another fantastic aspect of YCP is how accommodating it is to anyone who wants to get involved. It's clear that absolutely everyone's help—children, students, adults in both groups or as individuals—is fully utilized and appreciated. Even if you're unable to make it to the YCP site in Harlem, the slew of off-site volunteer opportunities allow you to contribute to YCP's efforts remotely.


Me hard at work.

How to Get Involved with YCP: On-Site Opportunities

Unload and shelve food from the delivery trucks. Pre-pack pantry bags for pantry distribution. (Ideal for kids) Distribute grocery packages during our food pantry. Serve breakfast and/or dinner at our meal programs. Prepare meals and food packages for our emergency 24|7 YCP food program.

The Pantry Schedule

Mondays: Organizing
Tuesdays: Help with delivery
Wednesday through Friday: Pre-packing
Thursday through Saturday: Pantry distribution

Meal Programs

Breakfast: Monday to Friday 7:45 to 9:30 am
Dinner Preparation: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Dinner: Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.

Administrative Help

Monday to Friday: Help with administrative tasks such as mailings, data entry, filing and other clerical tasks.

How to Get Involved with YCP: Off-Site Opportunities

Participate in one of our monthly food drives. Prepare sandwiches for our 24|7 YCP Brown-bag program. Host a clothing drive for items such as coats, scarves, and gloves. Invite a YCP staff member to speak about our programs and learn how you can contribute. Participate in one of our holiday related activities --Thanksgiving meals, turkey and toy drives.

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