The Chinese woman, bundled up and wearing a Hoboken hat in line at the food pantry, may not stand out at first glance. But many here know her by a surprising nickname: Ninja.
They say her reflexes don’t match her age. Watchful and stealthy, nothing gets past her. When an apple rolls off the table and into the crowd, Ninja instantly darts over to grab it. She carts heavy boxes of almost-expired bananas to a corner and examines each one, leaving the bad fruit on the ground. While others in line seem pleased to go home with a few fruit cups and salad bowls, Ninja has endurance. She waits until the very end, when the line is finished, in case there are any leftovers worth taking, then pushes an overflowing cart back to her building.
Ninja is just one of many people from the surrounding public housing buildings waiting outdoors on a freezing winter night to pick through leftover foods outside the Grand Street Settlement. Watching waves of church members unloading fruit boxes from a van at the end of the line, the crowd whispered they were having a lucky day. On many other, less-fortunate nights, they would wait almost an hour only to hear there was no food coming at the end.
James Rodriguez, who lives in Masaryk Towers nearby, began the food pantry almost three years ago with the help of his church, Manor Gospel Fellowship, which also runs a food pantry at its church on 350 West 26th Street. The food, which varies from night to night, is donated by Trader Joe’s, and the pantry operates three nights a week, depending on supply.
“We’re out here and we really need help,” he said. “Sometimes I hear some people say,
‘Thank you, I haven’t eaten in three days — thank you for supplying dinner.’”
Rodriguez says the Lower East Side has been particularly hard hit thanks to rising rents and food stamp cuts. Many of those who live in the nearby affordable and public housing complexes are elderly and survive off of fixed social security income each month, so they don’t have much left over for dinner after paying rent.
According to Food Bank for New York City, about 16.5 percent of New York city residents depend on emergency food assistance. The organization also calculates that after a nationwide $5 billion cut to food stamps support took effect in November 2013, the average family of four lost $35 a month, pushing New Yorkers to rely even more on food pantries like this.
But things are even tougher for those who rely on the food pantry now that winter has arrived in full force. Rodriguez said his group used to operate inside the community center of Masaryk Towers, but last winter it lost its space. A new board of the building worried about possible lawsuits if someone were to be injured on the premises. But Rodriguez and his volunteer army continue to operate year-round despite the elements, sometimes even shoveling snow to make the pantry possible.
He is investigating other possibilities for an indoor space but says he hasn’t found anything promising yet. “Now that there’s a windchill factor below zero, it’s critical. We stand there outside a couple of hours sometimes to do this pantry… that’s brutal,” he said. He doesn’t want to leave the community, though, because he said the area doesn’t have enough food pantries with a stable supply.
The Chinese woman may be known as “Ninja” to the food bank workers, who describe her as so aggressive that they have to keep an eye on her and sometimes forcefully make her leave after she’s taken her share. But as she carts her bounty back to her senior citizen home, she is greeted by another name.
“It’s La Chinita!” say residents sitting in the warm lobby of the building, their eyes lighting up. A resident named Carmen, sitting in a wheelchair, claps her hands and shimmies as the woman hands her bunches of bananas. “Ninja” only speaks Chinese, but she smiles merrily and points to her bananas, handing them out to everyone she lays eyes on – even those who don’t want them.
“No, no, no — not again!” says the security guard on duty, scrambling to cover his desk — to no avail. A large bunch of bananas lands next to his papers. He puts his head down and moans, “I can’t get her to stop!”
But for many of the residents, the gifts are a god-send and a simple act cementing friendship between neighbors, even if they come from different cultures and cannot communicate. “This lady is so sweet,” said Roberto Napoleon, the tenant’s association president of Baruch Houses, orginally from Puerto Rico. “Every time she is coming around, all the people get so happy. We don’t even know why she does it.” (When approached, she declined to be interviewed.)
Ninja doesn’t know how many more winter nights she may need to endure in order to get supplies for herself and for her neighbors, but she doesn’t seem phased by the ordeal. Still, Rodriguez notes that the lines are often much shorter when it gets to really freezing temperatures.
“I hope we get an indoor space and we have somewhere to do this more conveniently,” said Rodriguez, rubbing his hands together to keep warm. “But as it is now, if this is what it needs to be, this is what its going to be for now, until god provides something better for us.”