Comida; Calories of Power
Words by Christina Veiga with Photographs by José A. Alvarado Jr.
First published by Chalkbeat on July 8, 2022
Community fridges popped up on streets all across New York City during the pandemic. Neighbors stocked them with donations for fellow neighbors to use as they needed. This group installed fridges directly in schools because they knew schools already play a key role in keeping children fed. School lunch is free for all New York City students. With more than 70% of public school children coming from low-income families, the district is able to provide universal meals.
One of the volunteers leading the work is Power Malu, a mayor-like figure on the Lower East Side with feet in many worlds.
A leader in the urban running community, he also is a well-known figure in the underground poetry and Hip Hop scene, appearing in music videos and on MTV’s Lyricist Lounge. He runs a nonprofit called Artists, Athletes and Activists.
In February 2021, he helped open a plant-based community fridge outside Overthrow, a boxing gym that is also a community hub. Malu helps oversee events and partnerships at the gym.
Eating healthy was a challenge for many New Yorkers even before the pandemic.
The Lower East Side and much of the Bronx are in dire need of more grocery stores, according to a city analysis. The ratio of bodegas to grocery stores on the Lower East Side is 18 to 1. In the area of the Bronx where these volunteers were delivering food, it’s about 17 to 1.
Through connections with nonprofits, donations, and a grant from the city’s Pandemic Food Reserve Emergency Distribution Program, Malu’s group managed to start regular deliveries at five schools. They also made the rounds at New York City Housing Authority developments.
To get the food to where it’s needed, Malu rents a U-Haul, usually about 10- or 12-feet long.
Fresh food can be too expensive for many families with children. It can also be difficult to find in neighborhoods with few grocery stores, or at food pantries, where shelf-stable, processed foods are often the norm.
About 1.5 million New Yorkers are hungry. Among them are almost 500,000 children, according to City Harvest.
Their work connected them with Rémysell Salas, an activist in the Bronx who had been leading his own efforts to feed his neighbors. Salas’s nephew, Emilio, shown here, often joined.
“Being from here, I know everybody. There’s a common bond that they feel they can come to you,” he said. “I literally quit my job at one point just to be outside. The need was so much.”
This safety net was one of the reasons then-Mayor Bill de Blasio had been reluctant to close classrooms in spring 2020, until the city devised a plan to serve grab-and-go meals. Schools handed out 130 million meals while buildings were closed during the pandemic.
Advocates are worried about the coming year. Market rate rents here are up almost 30%. Officials recently approved the biggest increase in rent-stabilized apartments in almost a decade. Inflation has forced the largest year-over-year increase in grocery prices seen in 43 years. Energy costs have also exploded. Unemployment, at just under 6%, is about double the national average in New York City. For Black residents it’s even higher: just under 12%.
At the same time, the assistance offered throughout the pandemic – an eviction moratorium, hefty child tax credits, and expanded unemployment aid – has largely evaporated. A recent survey by the anti-hunger group No Kid Hungry found that families with public school students are especially struggling: Two-thirds said it’s harder to afford groceries now. “Despite people assuming that the pandemic is ending, we’ve been saying this all along, that the hunger crisis is going to be with us a long time,” said Rachel Sabella, director of No Kid Hungry.
New York City, New York — January 27, 2022: Power Malu, activist and head of Artist-Atheltes-Activists, delivers 290 bags of produce with the help of his niece Henesse to New York City public schools, P.S. 020 Anna Silver, M332 University Neighborhood Middle School, P.S. 140 Nathan Straus, and P.S. 034 Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan. Photographs by José A. Alvarado Jr. New York City United States of America
“Our kids are not eating healthy. And so how can we help, as community leaders in our neighborhood, to make an impact and make sure that our kids are eating well? You know, this is all connected in a way that it continues to keep us below and continues to keep us struggling,” Mejia said, referring to communities of color and people living in poverty.
Mayor Eric Adams is also an evangelist for healthy eating. He credits a plant-based diet with reversing his own diabetes and vision loss years ago. Since taking office, he instituted vegan lunches in school cafeterias on Fridays.
To help run the fridge, Malu tapped Lilah Mejia, a member of the local Community Education Council. She suggested they partner with schools to make sure the food was reaching the people who needed it most. Soon they were in P.S. 34, the elementary school she attended as a kid. “The schools know who is hungry,” she said.
At P.S. 34 kids sprinted across the concrete schoolyard to a metal cart with bags of food. They were after green grapes — which were gone in a frenzied few minutes. “It’s heartbreaking when there is no more. They want to eat this stuff,” Malu said. “You give them grapes and they get so excited – like a new pair of sneakers … It’s exciting but sad at the same time because they don’t have access to it.” Feeding everyone has gotten harder for Malu and the other volunteers.
Early on, pandemic aid was flowing and so were donations. Working with Mejia, the volunteers landed a grant to install 10 more fridges in schools across the Lower East Side. This spring, though, donations started to dry up. Malu started dipping into his own pockets to keep the deliveries coming. “I’m in a position where I’m behind on rent right now,” he said this spring.
At the end of June, the city grant ran out. By the end of the school year, deliveries dwindled to once a week, only feeding about 300. “That gut feeling that I have is an urgency,” Malu said. “‘In these neighborhoods, people feel alone. They feel abandoned. And that’s been before COVID.”
Christine Drago, the gym teacher there who also oversees community partnerships, told Malu about the problem. He connected with local vegan restaurants to donate prepared lunches like this cashew and tofu-based Bolognese pasta.
But at P.S. 20, students were not eating the vegan lunches, which often consisted of the same menu of canned vegetables and brown rice.
After prolonged school closures through the pandemic, and a return to buildings that was far from normal this year, much of the public’s attention has focused on how to help children make up for lost learning time. But it’s well-established that, for children to do well in school, they need to have enough to eat.
“The world is moving on while we’re still hungry,” said Pinto, the P.S. 20 principal.
“If we can create a sustainable system of food, imagine what we can do — once all of our kids and families don’t go to bed hungry at night.”