BENSONHURST — In May 2022, the food pantry at St. Athanasius Church was in peril, facing a shortfall in emergency pandemic funding that threatened to force it to close and terminate its ability to serve upward of 200 local families.
A little over a year later, the food pantry has survived, under new leadership, but faces new challenges reflecting those facing New York City as a whole. Inflation has driven food prices up 5.2% across the city in the past 12 months according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and volunteers at St. Athanasius find themselves struggling to feed a community that needs more than they have the funding to serve.
The pantry now serves approximately 400 people, lead volunteers Charlotte Montgomery and Mary Guadagni said at their weekly distribution, set up on Monday, June 26, in the St. Athanasius Church parking lot.
While on a recent day the volunteers had more food than usual to distribute to the community — thanks to remaining funds from a grant provided by the city — the volunteers were still forced to split bananas into bunches of two or three instead of six, because they knew they simply wouldn’t have enough to provide for all the patrons who would show up.
“Sometimes we get yelled at, because the people who are first … get everything,” Montgomery said. “For the people at the end, we have to run downstairs and scramble to get them stuff. Sometimes that becomes an issue with us, but at least we are able to get them something.”
Montgomery and Guadagni began leading the food distributions a year ago, coinciding with the arrival of a new pastor at the church, Father Michael Lynch.
The food pantry is an opportunity for the worshiping community to become engaged and involved, Father Lynch said, describing how it allows the worshipping community to extend its support throughout Benhonhurst.
“We want to be able to work with our neighbors but also engage our community to be a beacon of support, strength, and peacefulness for people who are hungry and people who need the help,” Father Lynch said.
A year ago, the main concern of the food pantry was permanent funding, as pandemic-era funding was dwindling. Now, alongside funding from the city — which was $11,000 for the fiscal year, Montgomery said — the food pantry also receives donations from The Campaign Against Hunger twice a month as well as from Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens.
Montgomery, who has been volunteering with the pantry for nearly five years, personally drives to East New York in order to pick up the donations from The Campaign Against Hunger.
Nearly all those who receive food from the pantry live in the Bensonhurst community. Approximately 85% are Asian, and the volunteers hear a range of different languages spoken by patrons: Russian, Chinese, Ukrainian, Spanish, and Albanian were among those Montgomery named.
Some 14.5% of residents in the Bensonhurst community face food insecurity, according to a report by the Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center. The report also notes that 24.5% of households are receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, a demographic that was affected when the SNAP Emergency Allotments program ended on March 1.
SNAP Emergency Allotments was a pandemic-era policy that provided households with a minimum $95 in additional SNAP benefit funds.
“I think that inflation has affected us, and need. Where SNAP used to give the extra amount toward the end of the month, they don’t do that anymore,” Guadagni said.
There has been a slight change in the demographic served by the food distribution effort, with Montgomery noting that a handful of new visitors were likely asylum-seekers under New York City’s care.
While there are 49,600 people under the city’s care as of June 15, the vast majority of the visitors at the food distribution continue to be familiar faces of Benhonhurst locals that Montgomery and Guadagni remember every week.
Distributions are every Monday starting at 3 p.m., with scheduled time slots for patrons to arrive. Much like a doctor’s office, Guadagni explained, walk-ins are welcome, but those with appointments are offered food first.
St. Athanasius food pantry is looking for donations of pop-top canned soup, canned meats, boxed cereal, canned fruit, oatmeal packets, instant coffee, tea bags, and crackers. Drop-off for donations is at the St. Joseph altar inside the church.
For those interested in volunteering or donating to the food drive, call the rectory at (718) 236-0124 with a message for Mary.
“People in the community know that we are here,” Father Lynch said. “St. A’s is a way that they can get some support. The people are thankful to God, we are thankful to God for the blessings that we have, and are mindful of the goodness of people because we are helping others.”