With the holiday season fully upon us, "How New York City Works" returns with a behind the scenes look at how City Harvest "rescues" excess food across the five boroughs and delivers it to the New Yorkers who need it. NY1’s Roger Clark filed the following report.
New York. Nearly 8.5 million people call it home. But for many, finding the money to put food on the table is an everyday challenge.
The latest numbers show some 17 percent of city residents live in poverty, with one in five not knowing where their next meal is coming from. For children, the number jumps to one in four.
With recent cuts to federal assistance programs, some New Yorkers are relying more and more on food pantries and soup kitchens, which are struggling to keep up. All this in a city where food is seemingly everywhere.
But there's also a lot of waste, with unsold but perfectly good food being thrown out. An organization called City Harvest is bridging the gap between this excess food and the people who need it. You've probably seen their trucks around town. Let's find out how it works.
We met up with driver Donte Moore, who gets in his truck at City Harvest's Long Island City distribution center. It's one of 21 trucks hitting the road to collect from more than 2,000 donors like restaurants, bakeries and markets around the city.
Donte's route takes him to Manhattan, where he'll make anywhere from 15 to 18 pickups. First up is Amy's Bread in Hells Kitchen for several bags of bread. Then, it's off to D'Agostino Grocery Store on the West Side for another bag of bread and a box of groceries. It's called "food rescue," but they're not after your leftovers.
"City Harvest doesn't take plate waste," says Jilly Stephens, executive director of City Harvest. "We take really good, usually whole food, that any one of us would be happy to eat, and we get it to the plates of hungry New Yorkers."
Donte only picks up from licensed food establishments to ensure everything's been properly stored and is safe to be eaten. He's been at this for 17 years, so he's well aware of the people he's helping.
"Before I came here, I didn't realize there were so many hungry people," he says. "And it's not just homeless people. It's, like, regular people like me and you, go to work everyday, and they have to decide, 'Am I going to pay my bills or I'm going to feed my kids?'"
Next, he's off to the world famous Le Bernardin French Seafood restaurant in Midtown, which has been donating for almost 20 years.
City Harvest makes daily pickups here at Le Bernardin. Co-owner and chef Eric Ripert is so passionate about helping out, they've dedicated a refrigerator just to City Harvest.
So what are they donating?
"It could be leftover sauce. It could be the bread from lunch. And also, when we cut the fish, we make perfect squares of fish and we have a lot of leftover," Ripert says. "And it takes as much time to take the food and put it in the garbage than to take it in a clean container and save it for City Harvest."
Donte now heads to Whole Foods in Chelsea, where today's donation has everything from fresh pasta sauce, to chicken salad and cold cuts.
They're not just collecting from traditional food establishments. As the day wraps, volunteers hit three greenmarkets around the city. In Union Square, they solicit donations of all sizes from vendors, like the folks from Migliorelli Farm, who say it's easier to donate all of their unsold produce rather than haul it back, where odds are it'll be too old to sell by the next market. Plus, they get a tax write-off.
On this night, crews collected 80 bags. If you think that's a lot, City Harvest also receives bulk donations from manufacturers and farms across the U.S. and Canada at their Long Island City facility.
You can fit a lot of food in this tractor-trailer. Every day, between four and eight arrive here delivering fresh produce and all kinds of food. The food is unloaded, inspected and cataloged.
So why would a farmer or manufacturer donate so much? It could be as simple as how it looks.
"It might have a small blemish on it. It might be a little bit larger than the standard carrot, say, and you can't sell that at the large supermarket chains," said Jim Dunne, associate director of warehouse ops with City Harvest.
Sometimes, it comes down to supply and demand. When farmers grow more than they can sell, it can be in their best interest to keep excess off the market to avoid prices dropping, so they'll donate it. For packaged goods, expiration dates come into play.
"Say it has today's date and it's yogurt. Most yogurt has another seven days' life on it. It's still good. The nutrition is still the same. The flavor is the same. It's just for the manufacturer, they don't have a lot of time to sell that product. A supermarket really can't carry it if it only has six or seven days on it," Dunne says.
The bulk donations, such as crates of apples, are repacked into smaller bundles by volunteers so it'll be easier to distribute them.
City Harvest volunteers come from all walks of life. Some are servicemen and women. Some are pretty tall, like the Brooklyn Nets.
So how does all of this food get to hungry people? Those trucks picking up around town are also dropping off along the way. We caught up with Donte again at the New York Rescue Mission in Downtown Manhattan, where he delivers some much-appreciated juice for the organization that feeds 300 to 400 people a day. Some were already lined up to received pre-packed bags from their pantry.
City Harvest also distributes at eight mobile markets across the city, including one in Astoria where more than 400 families line up twice a month for bags of free produce. The markets are in neighborhoods with little or no access to fresh fruits and vegetables. It comes in handy for Gwendolyn Chase, who has to feed herself and eight children.
"Sweet potatoes, corn, it's so expensive. And we have to walk so far to get to the nearest fresh fruit market," she says. "By me coming to City Harvest to get my vegetables, I have extra money to buy meat. I can get fish and my chicken now."
Back to Donte, who pulls up to the Bowery Mission, an organization that's been serving homeless and hungry New Yorkers since 1879. They get 25 City Harvest deliveries a week. Much of what Donte's collected today is brought back to their kitchen, run by chef Trevor Mathura. He and chef Ping Lo sort through the donations, and there are always surprises.
"Sushi, and you have salmon avocado roll with cream cheese," Trevor says. "Wow. This is awesome, I will make someone smile today with this thing here."
Trevor was without his usual kitchen volunteers, so producer Jessica Steiner and I stepped in to lend a hand, getting a crash course in cooking for and serving hundreds of people.
Since Trevor doesn't know what he's getting from day to day, he gets creative to come up with hearty and nutritious meals.
"We have to feed almost 200 people here for lunch, and the numbers is rising, too, so this is exactly how we create and stretch it to give them a healthy meal," he says.
The chicken salad and chicken breasts from Whole Foods are used to make a rice dish. The Bok Choy from Le Bernadin is rinsed and sauted for a healthy side dish. Add some beans, some sliced bread and juice, and it's a filling meal for some of the 750 people a day that rely on Bowery for food. It's food that wouldn't be here if it wasn't for City Harvest, its volunteers and the generosity of so many donors.
So that's how rescued food helps feed the hungry across the five boroughs, and that's how New York City works.