As super-sized balloons bobbed through Manhattan in Thursday’s annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a white and red trailer led a different procession into the South Bronx.
The trailer is the command center for Mercy Chefs, a Virginia-based cooking crew that distributes food to victims to hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters. For the second year the group drove to Hunts Point to serve hot Thanksgiving meals to cash-strapped families in the Bronx’ poorest neighborhood.
At 8 a.m., the trailer and a handful of follow cars stopped in front of the Hunts Point Recreation Center on Manida Street, which on Sundays houses the New Season Christian Center church. New Season partnered with the Bowery Mission in Manhattan to bring in the Mercy Chefs, which also sent teams to sites in the North Bronx and Brooklyn.
Gary Leblanc, director of the Mercy Chefs, brought three other cooks and enough food to serve up to 400 individuals. Huge plastic bags filled with carved turkey, potatoes, stuffing and gravy packed the trailer’s hulking freezer.
“At a hurricane or flood site, there is a tremendous sense of urgency; people need power and water and food,” Leblanc said. “Here it is a different sense of urgency because demand for food is up so much this year.”
Numbers from the Food Bank for New York City support Leblanc’s assertion. More than 90 percent of the group’s 1000 citywide distribution centers reported an increase in the number of people looking for food handouts this year, and half of those reported seeing an increase of 25 percent or more.
And while demand is up, the supply of donated food is down. In the wake of the recession, many donors, both private and public, simply do not have the surpluses in food or cash to give this year. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reported that 55 percent of assistance agencies in New York City said they weren’t able to distribute enough food to meet demands.
The food shortage is a major problem during the holidays, as many distribution centers around the city organize meals and food giveaways for Thanksgiving and Christmas that are larger than usual. The Rev. Paul Block, pastor at the Lutheran Transfiguration Food Pantry in Hunts Point said his group had difficulty with its Thanksgiving handouts this year. Lutheran Transfiguration does not organize a meal, but instead hands out whole turkeys the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.
Last year, the church’s food bank handed out 80 turkeys, but this year they only gave out 40. A donor, who Block would not name, was unable to supply the annual funds to purchase the birds. Block said he contemplated dipping into the bank’s funds to make up the difference, but decided otherwise.
“That would reduce the amount of food we’d be able to give out on Mondays for the rest of the year,” Block said. “Thanksgiving is just one day, and it can be an extravagance. How may of us really eat entire turkeys?”
Supplies are equally as tight with the Bowery Mission, which each year distributes approximately 350,000 meals to people in New York City. According to Efrain Ramos, the Bowery’s supervisor of outreach, the food pantry was 500 turkeys short this year after an unnamed donor group backed down from its 2008 commitment.
Ramos also said the Bowery’s food distribution warehouse in Pennsylvania, which is usually fully stocked before the holidays, is far below its usual capacity.
“Times are hard for everyone, and some people just can’t give,” said Ramos, 40. “I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in a month. There are people relying on you to bring food, and you don’t want to let them down.”
Ramos said the Bowery scrambled to meet its food obligations, but rounded up donations from area and nationwide grocers, and cash contributions from private givers. Instead of asking for general food contributions, Ramos said, the Bowery organized food drives for specific foods such as cranberry sauce, stuffing and gravy at area schools and churches.
Many of those supplies ended up in LeBlanc’s trailer. He and his crew spent the better part of the week before Thanksgiving at the Bowery cooking 600 turkeys and hundreds of pounds of Thanksgiving fixings. The Chefs then flash-froze the food in vacuum-sealed the food, which they divvied up between the three meal sites.
They packed the food in the $100,000 trailer, which is powered by a 12-kilowatt gas generator, and supplies a water filtration system and a propane line. The trailer, Leblanc said, designed to distribute 4000 meals a day, and houses a six-burner industrial stove, three triple-rack ovens, two large refrigerators and a 10-foot long cooking and preparation table. All the chefs had to do was warm the meals in an oven and serve them.
However Leblanc said his group also faced shortfalls this year. Leblanc developed the Mercy Chefs idea in 2005 after working as a volunteer chef cooking meals for victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The concept was a hit, and Leblanc quickly raised enough funding for six trailers and a staff of 32 volunteer chefs.
He said his group spends approximately $70,000 on groceries each year. But the majority of the food comes from major distributors in the form of donations. The former flood of food donations, Leblanc said, has slowed in recent months. He believes it’s because companies are no longer producing surpluses.
“It’s been more restricted this year, and people are very precise with their giving,” Leblanc said. “We’ve had to push on people a little harder this year. We’ve had to be much wiser with our resources.”
Leblanc and his crew showed up in Manhattan after working for two weeks in San Leon, Texas. The group had been feeding aid workers rebuilding two churches damaged in 2008 when Hurricane Ike slammed the area.
Mary Jo Hencye, a chef from Sarasota, Fla, was not in San Leon, but made the drive up from Virginia to help in the Bronx. Hencye volunteered with the Mercy Chefs in the Bronx in 2008 as well.
“In a disaster, people have some of the same needs as here, but in a way the situation here is a little more sad,” Hencye said. “In a serious disaster it seems so devastating but you know people are going to be able to put their lives back together. Here, this is their life.”
As Hencye and Leblanc began emptying bags into heated pans, the smell of gravy and sweet potatoes floated into the neighborhood. Rivera and fellow pastor Phillip Bonano walked out of the recreation center carrying armloads of pamphlets advertising the free meals. The two men then began knocking on nearby doors, telling neighbors about the 11 a.m. serving time.
Soon, a small collection of people queued up in front of the recreation center.
“I want to see what kind of flavor they have going on there,” said Ron Mack, 50, who stood outside the facility with his pit bull Roxy.
After heating a heaping tray of white meat, Leblanc walked into the recreation center with the day’s first serving. The group still had 45 minutes to spare until mealtime, and the trailer bustled with activity.
“People ask why we come here away from our own families on Thanksgiving,” Leblanc said. “The real question is why more people don’t.”