As kids all over the city entered summer break on Monday, the New York City Department of Education decided to continue its Free Meals initiative. Originally restricted to students and, subsequently, children, the grab-and-go program was expanded in early April to include adults as well, and will continue to operate this way throughout the season.
Over 70 million free meals have been distributed by the city of New York since March, with an estimated 1.5 million meals per day now, Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a press conference last week. The meals are among several efforts– some grassroots, others corporate– to ensure families in the city have access to food during the coronavirus crisis.
For nearly two months, New York University students who didn’t return home when the pandemic hit had access to grab-and-go meals at the Palladium dining hall. Meal-plan holders and non-holders alike could pick up three meals at once every day.
At the end of the spring semester, however, the site was closed, after an NYU survey showed that students living on campus during the summer showed “little interest” in continuing the program, said the university’s Campus Services senior director, Kathrina O’Mahony.
Mahony pointed out that, even though NYU’s dining halls are closed, students enrolled in summer classes who live within walking distance of the Washington Square Park campus still have access to Courtesy Meals, which during summer will provide them with a voucher for groceries at Trader Joe’s.
Share Meals is another initiative that helps students who face food insecurity. The digital platform, created seven years ago by educator Jon Chin, connects students on meal plans, who have extra meals, to students in need. Originally only available at NYU, the project now covers 400 universities across the country, with around 8,300 users – anyone with a .edu email address can register.
The platform works both on desktop and through a mobile app available for Android and iOS. In addition to sharing meals, users can also post about on-campus catered events. Over the past semester, the platform saw about 300 users every day. But with campuses closed and most students away, that number dropped to less than a few dozen, and some changes had to be made.
Now, the app is updated every night with information about food pantries open in the city. “We were really focused on getting out information about local food to students as soon as possible, so they can walk over there [and] they can pick it up,” Chin said. “Somebody who’s quarantining in Staten Island, they can’t really access the same food resources that we had before. So we’ve been pivoting on that.”
Chin said that, although the pandemic shifted some of the platform’s old models, generally first-generation students and students of color tend to be more vulnerable to food insecurity, along with graduate and international students.
The next goal is to reach more people in need by opening the platform to the general public, which should happen in the next couple of months. “We are working with mutual aid groups to understand what they’re doing, what their best practices are, what their needs are,” Chin said. “We are retooling our entire platform to be able to do that.”
According to the Department of Education, any New Yorker can pick up three free meals at a time at over 400 locations across the five boroughs, no questions asked. Vegetarian and halal options are available at all sites and some also offer kosher options. Starting this week, frozen pizza kits are also being distributed. Menus and locations are listed on their website.