NEW YORK – New York National Guard troops have distributed more than 52 million meals to New York City residents since picking up that mission on March 21.
That’s about half of the 100 million meals distributed through the Get Food NYC pandemic response program launched by city officials in March.
New York National Guard Soldiers were stepping away from the mission on Aug. 8 as the number of Soldiers and Airmen on the COVID-19 response mission is reduced from over 3,600 at its peak to around 1,100.
The Get Food NYC effort was created to feed newly unemployed people, residents who had been relying on food pantries, and families that had counted on school lunches and breakfasts to feed their kids.
In April, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said city officials estimated that 2 million New York City residents needed food help of some kind.
The meal program was set up to help using city, state and federal money.
“No one should have to question where their next meal is coming from,” the mayor told reporters in April. “As we face this crisis head-on, we remain committed to feeding all New Yorkers in need,” he said.
As the pandemic shut down school food programs and senior citizens who had volunteered at food banks and pantries stayed home because of health concerns, New York City and state officials tapped the Guard to fill the need.
As of Aug. 6, 118 New York National Guard Soldiers and Airmen were working at 11 distribution sites across New York City’s five boroughs and also assisting at a food pantry in Queens.
That day, 345,186 meals were distributed at the 11 New York National Guard sites, bringing the total number of meals passed out to 52,309,560.
The Soldiers working at the Queens food bank and other locations had helped package 2,267,407 since the mission started.
More than 150 troops were assigned to the meal distribution mission across New York City at its peak, according 1st Lt. Daniel Graham, a member of Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry.
The meal distribution mission evolved since its start in March, Graham said. Initially, members of the Guard were involved in all aspects from food transport and packaging to staffing distribution centers in the community.
“Earlier in the mission we would actually assemble the meals ourselves into boxed lunches or even brown bags,” said Spc. Josiah Mena, a member of Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry.
“This could be anything from sandwiches we’d make by hand, snacks, canned foods, and other items. We were working directly with OEM (New York City’s Office of Emergency Management) to hand the meals to the members of the community. It was a very satisfying mission,” Mena said.
For the past few months the Guard’s role has focused on logistics, warehousing, and ensuring meal packages reach community distribution sites, Graham said.
A key element of the city’s food distribution program has been paying taxi drivers and Taxi and Limousine Commission hire car drivers to deliver meals to people who cannot get out to pick them up. The city also hired Uber and Lyft drivers for the home delivery of meals, especially to seniors.
It puts money in the pockets of drivers who cannot find conventional fares and gets food to those who need it, according to city officials.
New York National Guard troops have played a key role in this process. As the cabs roll through the distribution centers, Guard members loaded them up with food boxes provided by the city.
At the West Bronx Recreation Center, Spc. Alexander Kulich, another member of the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry’s Headquarters Company, has been working with New York City OEM on the taxi distribution mission.
“They are responsible for purchasing and assembling the packages. We then load the meal boxes into TLC taxi’s and the drivers are provided a distribution list of homes and pantry sites by OEM,” Kulich explained.
The meals vary, but a typical box delivered consists of two breakfasts, two lunches, and two dinners. The boxes consist of either prepared meals or non-perishable items. The items can range from prepared meatloaf to boxes of cereal to canned tuna, Graham said.
Options for vegetarian, kosher and halal meals were part of the distribution network.