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Coronavirus depletes kosher food pantries at worst possible time — Passover

In a normal year, the weeks leading up to Passover are a boom time for a Hasidic handyman who specializes in installing dishwashers and stoves. His services are in high demand right before the holiday, when Orthodox families like to schedule home improvements to coincide with a rigorous cleaning.

This year is different. He hasn’t seen a new job in three weeks. Instead of getting new clients, he’s become one himself — of the kosher food pantry Masbia.

“He didn’t even know the soup kitchen language,” said Alexander Rapaport, Masbia’s executive director, who said Masbia is seeing roughly double the demand for its services than it normally does this time of year. “He comes into the place, he has no idea what to ask.”

Coronavirus has put pressure on kosher food pantries at exactly the worst time — Passover, which starts on April 8. It’s an especially expensive holiday because the prohibition on leaven requires observant Jews to procure eight days’ worth of special food. Now the economic impact of the virus has deepened need among existing food pantry clients and created new ones, like the handyman. And it’s all happening as food prices are going up and pantry workers are staying home for their own safety. The service providers interviewed by the Forward said they’ll be able to scrape through the holiday with the help of emergency aid, but once it’s over, they’ll need yet more funding to stay open.

The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty estimates that there are 500,000 poor or near-poor Jews in New York City. In the month before Passover the Met Council, which works with 40 food pantries, usually serves 180,000 people, said CEO David Greenfield. This year, with the holiday still a week away, it has already provided assistance to 200,000. City Harvest, an organization that redistributes food to the needy, including kosher-observant Jews, has also seen an uptick in demand.

“So many people have reached out” for help, said Rabbi Ari Kirschenbaum of Chabad Heights, who runs an annual fund to help needy members of his Crown Heights community purchase Passover food. “They’ve lost their jobs, they’re worried about rent. The state of the Seder isn’t even their first priority,” he said, referring to the ritual meal served on the first two nights of the eight-day festival.

What’s more, panic buying has resulted in increased food prices for everyone, including food pantries: eggs, of which the Met Council buys hundreds of thousands each week, have tripled in price in the last two weeks, Greenfield said. To secure large orders, nonprofits like the Met Council compete with retail giants who can afford to buy food staples at high prices. Competition for kosher food is especially intense, he said, because many affluent Jews who normally travel during Passover are staying home and stocking up.

At the same time, the volunteers who staff most food pantries are typically retirees, members of a demographic especially at risk for serious cases of coronavirus. Many must stay home for the sake of their own health. For those still venturing out, the Met Council has spent over $300,000 on personal protective equipment like gloves and masks, an unexpected expense in an already strained budget (if you want to donate to food pantries fighting hunger during coronavirus, here’s how).

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And for some pantry managers, the psychological toll of catering to desperate people with inadequate supplies is just too much. “I had one pantry manager say, ‘I can’t take this. We don’t have the food, people are calling, they’re yelling, they’re screaming,’” said Greenfield of one pantry that recently closed because of its inability to meet demands. Indeed, he estimates that as many as a third of food pantries citywide have already closed.

Kirschenbaum said that this year many people who normally donate to his fund are themselves in need of help but embarrassed to ask for it. So when he hears someone in his community has been laid off, he doesn’t wait for them to call.

“I don’t ask them what they need. I simply say, ‘What is your Cash App email?’” he said, referring to a widely-used money transfer app. “I want to remove their ability to say no.”

But these are short-term fixes, focused on Passover, and coronavirus will likely outlast them. Greenfield says that he’s been able to cope with increasing costs thanks to an emergency grant from the UJA Federation of New York, which on March 23 gave the Met Council $1.75 million to support food pantry operations and provide Passover meals.

In order to survive and serve an expanded clientele beyond the holiday, food pantries need stable sources of long-term funding. City Harvest and Met Council have called for $25 million dollars in state assistance. But as of Wednesday, as lawmakers met in Albany to finalize the state’s annual budget, the legislature had made no commitment to providing emergency funding for food pantries. If the government doesn’t step in, Greenfield said, as many as half of New York City’s food pantries could close.

“Post-Passover, nobody has a plan,” he said.

Irene Katz Connelly is an editorial fellow at the Forward. You can contact her at [email protected].

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