City Harvest is New York City’s largest food rescue initiative,   saving 75 million pounds of food this year and delivering it, free of charge, to hundreds of food programs and organizations across the five boroughs, including the Center for Recovery and Wellness. City Harvest’s partnership with our Community Food Program began back in 2012, when it was called the “Brown Bag” and was located on East 10th Street at the original Pride Site residential location. The Brown Bag was founded only a couple of years earlier by John Gordon, CRW’s Associate Executive Director for Clinical Programs, and Keithie Lawrence, Director of Community and Recovery Services. While working at CRW, they identified the need to distribute food to our neighbors on the Lower East Side. 

Gail Brennan, CRW’s Volunteer Coordinator, first became involved with the Community Food Program as a volunteer in the spring of 2020. Gail started as a part time employee in December 2020 and took charge of the Community Food Program full-time in March 2021.

Gail has since developed a close relationship with City Harvest and Dawn Bridgeford, their Program Operations Manager. Dawn works directly with CRW and other community organizations to coordinate the delivery of donated groceries. “I work with all of our partner agencies, but my focus is primarily the ones that receive local donations,” Dawn explains. “I work directly with them to make sure that they are getting the right food at the right time.

“Gail came in and got things organized in a way that we were able to help her build her program. It’s set up in a way that people can come right up and ask for information. She makes people feel welcome and she’s a diligent, hard worker. Such a pleasure to work with her.”  

Gail has made some key changes to make it a better experience for community members to pick up food. One of the biggest changes is the implementation of the Plentiful app in March 2021, which allows people to sign up for a specific time slot to receive food and to check in with a volunteer when they arrive. Instead of clients waiting in one big line, they now wait in a specific line designated and assigned for their time slot. To deal with the increased need for volunteers associated with the new Plentiful system, Gail has started recruiting more volunteers using Volunteer Match, the Educational Alliance volunteer recruitment network, and John Jay College and the Hunter College Red Cross Club.  

Although COVID-19 presented acute challenges to feeding the hungry, City Harvest rose to the occasion, moving 300 million pounds during the pandemic to the five boroughs. “We’re still dealing with the aftermath of COVID and seeing high levels of participation in food pantries. Prices have increased and that in combination with supply chain issues has made things more challenging. We’ve had to pivot a lot and change our methods because of COVID. But I think we’ve adapted really well, almost seamlessly in a lot of ways. I’m really proud to be a part of an organization that can do that,” said Dawn.

Demand for our services at the Community Food Program has continued to grow. In all of 2021, CRW gave out around 12,500 bags of food, and this year in 2022 distributed that many bags between January and the end of October.  Volunteers hand out an average of 300 bags each week. In any given month, 600 – 700 unique individuals pick up food.

The Community Food Program is made possible by all of our dedicated volunteers who help distribute the groceries each week. Volunteering offers people a chance to give back to the community while meeting other like minded people. Brooke, a current Junior at the New School who used to live nearby, has been volunteering consistently since the beginning of 2022.

“The community of volunteers is super welcoming and nice,” says Brooke. “Everybody’s here to just help out and work, but you also get to know the people that come by to get food every week. They’re very sweet [and] this is a nice community, just people trying to help.” Brooke also said that her participation catalyzed her interest in learning more about food insecurity as a structural issue in NYC and has inspired her to pursue a degree in Urban Studies.  

To learn more about the Community Food Program and volunteering, please visit the Community Food Program website.