Responding to food insecurity during Ramadan

How City Harvest is responding to the needs of New York’s Muslim community.

A City Harvest worker delivers 10 pallets of dried dates and rice flour to the Council of Peoples Organization in Coney Island

A City Harvest worker delivers 10 pallets of dried dates and rice flour to the Council of Peoples Organization in Coney Island (Image courtesy of City Harvest)

As more than 750,000 Muslim New Yorkers observe the final week of Ramadan, nonprofit food pantries have helped provide meals, relieving the strain on New York mosques which have worked to accommodate added demand from incoming asylum-seekers.

City Harvest, New York City’s first and largest food rescue nonprofit, has aimed to lessen this burden by providing culturally appropriate Halal foods to observing Muslims for Ramadan. Having rescued and delivered more than a billion pounds of fresh food over its 40 year history, this Ramadan, the nonprofit has been working to deliver more than 1.2 million pounds of high quality food to observant New Yorkers. That included 10 pallets of dried dates and rice flour to the Council of People's Organization in Coney Island, made possible through a donation from AKC Commodities Inc, allowing food insecure Muslim New Yorkers to find resources through the Halal food program’s array of distribution points.

New York Nonprofit Media spoke to City Harvest chief policy and operations officer, Carlos Rodriguez, on the organization’s Halal food initiative amidst high inflation and the end of pandemic-era benefits. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Tell me about City Harvest’s Ramadan initiative. Why is it important to provide culturally appropriate resources to underserved communities?

City Harvest has a core value of community first. That translates into this Ramadan initiative by getting to know our neighbors throughout the five boroughs, the diversity that they bring and really appreciating that when we're serving food insecure neighbors. While there's 750,000 Muslims that live in New York City, less than half of the city's food pantries allow food options such as halal meat. As we look to bring culturally appropriate food to all communities, we want to make sure that this particular population has what they need during this important holiday. We do find a large population of observing Muslims in Brooklyn. But I think you will find observing Muslims throughout the five boroughs, and that's why it's important for us to make sure that we have partners, and as many partners not just serving our Muslim communities, but to carry Halal food so that wherever you may live, you can access to food that's culturally appropriate for you. 


In addition to Halal meats, what food products are being served to communities?

Including Halal meats we also have fresh produce, [distributed] through several food pantry partners across the five boroughs. This year, we’re actually planning to rescue and distribute more than 1.2 million pounds of food. One such partnership is with the Council of People's Organization in Brooklyn. We couldn't do any of this without generous food donors, like AKC commodities, who just a few weeks ago, connected us with 30,000 pounds of dates. We were able to make these dates available to six partners in total, so they can be enjoyed by neighbors across the city for Ramadan. The work that we do would not be possible without the partnerships of nearly 400, local community based pantries, soup kitchens, and similar not for profits that really are at the frontlines of each community, engaging with neighbors every day. With them we develop strategies and opportunities to better serve New Yorkers to elevate voices of need and articulate what policies can make a difference to improve our city.

Is there a higher need this season compared to previous years?

Absolutely. You don't have to be food insecure to really appreciate the difficulty of price increases that are today's reality. Post-pandemic inflation and other global events have really had an impact on food prices, and that disproportionately lands on low and moderate income New Yorkers. So it's no secret that food costs are high, and it's no surprise that many more New Yorkers are struggling to make ends meet. It's not just food that's gone up. We see a lot of families having to make hard choices with their food and the nutrition to have a good quality of life. You may be either recently unemployed or underemployed, or suffered a recent hardship that could be health related. 


Has the influx of asylum-seekers impacted City Harvest? Have providers been able to keep up with demand?

We monitor that and we have seen some pantries report a disproportionate increase in need. And what I mean by disproportionate is, every pantry throughout the city, for the most part is reporting an increased need, but we have seen, even above and beyond that. Some pantries say that they've seen some asylum-seekers finding a way to some of their services. The best thing, in my opinion, is to process these asylum-seekers and allow them to do what generations of New Yorkers and Americans have come here to do, to find a way to be employed if they're eligible and be part of a thriving economy, which has made not just our city, but our country what it is today.


Can you tell me a bit more about City Harvest’s advocacy work? What are some policies that you’re advocating for?

A couple of the main policy points that we’re championing now is increasing the minimum SNAP benefit from $23 to $100 a month, and there's some state discretion that will allow that. And that allows families that are eligible for SNAP to shop the way you and I shop at the local stores. The other item that we’re championing is Nourish New York dollars, which is a program focused on procuring more fresh produce, a lot of which is available in New York state and then making it available to families. So we want to make sure that that funding actually increases in a meaningful way so that we can reach more communities throughout the state. And the third piece is the HPNAP funding, which is a separate funding, and that's just in New York City and in New York state. At the federal level, we're hoping for a strong farm bill. The farm bill is not just for farmers, it's actually where a lot of the nutrition entitlements live. For example, the SNAP program at the federal level, is always reenacted and opportunities for changes are through the farm bill, and other programs as well. The child tax credit is also something that we've been championing to make sure that it increases at the federal level. Because we know that that's an effective tool to lift families out of poverty by giving them that extra income on top of work income, that they may have to be able to make ends meet, especially in an area that's high cost of living at this particular moment in time.


With pandemic-era benefits tapering away, how is this impacting those experiencing food insecurity?

Well, I wish they would have tapered away. But the reality is that they were turned off hard and dramatically when inflation was rising. The reality is that quick change actually created a lot of confusion and chaos among many families. There was a scramble, as many families were trying to reapply for benefits and New York City specifically, found itself with a tremendous backlog of applicants for SNAP alone. Now, it's our understanding that that backlog has been addressed. But you can imagine the confusion and the hardship of having benefits that were keeping you afloat, to transition into this post pandemic reality where all of a sudden they’re being turned off. So it's been less than ideal for New Yorkers most vulnerable.