In mid-March, when COVID-19 hit New York City and all the schools closed, I felt helpless. I watched the nightly news, listened to the radio during breakfast, and was bombarded throughout the day with alerts on my phone about all the different ways the pandemic was ruining people’s lives. Here in New York, people were not only losing jobs, but family members, with death tolls rising every day.
I wanted to find a way to help. But I felt like there was nothing I could do, because my family was trapped in quarantine.
One night we were at the dinner table and I mentioned this to my parents. My mom suggested that we look into food banks near us. She didn’t want us to volunteer at the closest center, located in a local church’s basement, because we were being extremely careful about our quarantine. So instead we started a system where we would host drives for our local food pantry, Goke. We covered our Brooklyn neighborhood in colorful fliers with bold red lettering advertising our weekend drives.
A Helping Hand
For our first delivery, we filled up almost nine cardboard shipping boxes of donations for Goke. As we loaded the brown boxes stuffed with shiny cans and colorful packages into the car, I beamed with happiness. I felt like this might actually make a difference.
But the more I looked at the boxes, the less they impressed me. How could nine boxes do anything? It felt like we were living through an apocalypse: I had actually thought that nine boxes of non-perishable food was going to make a difference? Suddenly all the happiness I’d felt a few minutes earlier vanished. I felt defeated and naive for thinking that we were making even the slightest dent.
But when my parents got home from dropping off the goods, they described how happy the people running the food bank were to receive such a large donation. They also talked about how many people—possibly hundreds—were waiting in line to get food for themselves and their families. This made me realize that even though we may not have changed the world, we were still helping our neighbors.
Kindness Out of Nowhere
My mood was boosted even further one warm Sunday afternoon in early May, when we were running a drive and a young couple walked by. They paused to look at our sign describing what donations we sought. It sat next to the two cardboard boxes filled with canned green beans, Cheerios, and a couple jars of baby formula. Then they smiled and walked away. It was a smaller collection than usual; as the weather was warming up people had been donating less and less. Maybe they had stopped paying attention to our posters on the streetlamps around our neighborhood, or maybe the first hints of summer had made people forget that we were still living through a crisis.
A lot of people come by to read the sign and see what was going on. Sometimes they take a picture to remember the details and times, but usually we don’t see them again.
Half an hour later, my dad and our dog Zeus, (a rescue; we think he’s a Basenji hound-German Shepherd mix), joined me to sit on the porch. Then I saw the couple coming back. The short, brunette lady smiled and handed over a crisp check. We barely had time to thank her; they waved quickly and were gone.
They had donated $100! No one had ever donated that much. I was shocked at such generosity. I imagined how much food the pantry could buy with that, and how many families could be fed that week.
After receiving the check, I was excited for the next drop off of donations. My parents were going to film some interviews for a documentary they were making about the coronavirus. But again, all the accomplishment I had felt earlier faded away when a woman in line told me her story.
She was standing in line, waiting on an unseasonably cold day. Through her blue surgical mask, she told us how she had already lost her grandmother and her sister to COVID-19, as well as her job, and now she was relying on a food bank for the first time in her life. She feared for her own safety and the safety of her partner, yet she still had to make trips to the food bank in order to feed them both.
Over the next few weeks, I kept thinking about this. How are some people able to make such generous donations, yet other people are experiencing the hardest times of their lives? Why was a global pandemic having such varying impacts on people who live literally blocks away from each other? Everyone was certainly struggling, but to wildly different degrees.
This made me think more about the depths of economic inequality in our society. Shouldn’t people be able to rely more on their government for assistance in times of crisis? Even the stimulus checks that were supposed to go to everyone did not seem to be fully distributed. Three weeks after my family was supposed to have received theirs, it hadn’t arrived.
If that stimulus check was somebody’s only source of income and it was three weeks late, what would they do? Is $1,200 even enough to keep you afloat, especially living in New York City, where everything from groceries to rent is usually more expensive than anywhere else in the country? By late July, there had been 19 straight weeks where unemployment claims totaled at least 1 million. In June, there were 15 million fewer American jobs than in February. Clearly, the stimulus checks were very important.
The Government’s Responsibility
I was born in Vancouver, Canada, and my family and I immigrated here in 2009. The rest of my family still lives there and I have noticed that the Canadian government works very differently.
For instance, here in the U.S., the early pandemic plan was for the government to distribute a one-time economic stimulus payment of $1,200 to each adult earning less than $75,000. In Canada, the government is giving unemployed or furloughed workers $2,000 each month for four months. While the Canadian dollar is worth less than the American dollar (approximately $0.75 USD=$1CAD), Canada is giving out a larger sum over a longer period.
This is largely due to Canada’s higher tax rate, and to the larger social safety net it creates, which most Canadians accept for the social good of all. But in America, whenever a politician proposes higher taxes, there is usually outrage, backlash, and anger—as if the government wants the money to go gambling, instead of protecting the weakest among us.
In addition to the tax rate, where governments choose to distribute money plays a large role as well. According to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, the U.S. spends half of its annual federal budget on the military and defense.
Legislative action here in the U.S. can play the biggest role in reducing economic inequality. If our national budget was redistributed and there was a higher tax on those who make the top 1% of income, that would go a long way to ensure financial stability for everyone.
However, this is not to say that individuals cannot make a difference as well. This experience of running food drives has taught me it is possible for individual action to make a positive impact within a community. Every cereal box and can of tomatoes added up and fed someone in need, even just for a day. Helping my hungry neighbors, and experiencing the generosity of the woman with the $100 check, helped ease my own feelings of helplessness. This is not to let the government off the hook—they should be doing much more—but when people help others, they often feel more connected, less isolated, and as if they are helping in some way to create the world they want.
To find NYC food banks in your area visit foodbanknyc.org/get-help/.
How to Run a Food Drive
-Be persistent with messaging and information. Keep sharing information about donations/drives. Post information on social media and in visible public places (lampposts) in your neighborhood with the location, date, and time of your food drive.
-Gather non-perishable food. Think canned soups, rice, pasta, boxed meals, baby formula, juice, pedialyte (really great because it is very hydrating and can also help people if they get sick), and snacks for children such as Goldfish, other crackers, and dried fruits.
-Find out if the food pantry you’re donating to also accepts toiletries or other personal items such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, and soap. The most needed item in most shelters is pairs of socks.
-When you decide on the food pantry where you will donate, check times they are open and other guidelines.
-Be sure not to donate items that have broken seals or have already been opened and partially consumed. This is a health and safety hazard.