NYC's New Food Czar on Trying to Keep People Fed in a Pandemic Hot Spot
As the number of novel coronavirus cases in New York City mounted towards the end of March, New York City mayor Bill De Blasio appointed Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia to be the city’s COVID-19 Food Czar. Under Garcia, the city has made impressive strides. In just the last month, the city’s 400 Department of Education Meal Hubs have offered any New Yorker in need (no identification required) three meals a day. That amounts to 300,000 meals daily from grab-and-go, and about 120,000 to 140,000 per day in home delivery to seniors, COVID-vulnerable, and homebound New Yorkers. In total, the city has served over 4.5 million free meals since the start of the pandemic.
On April 15th, the city released its Feeding New York Report, in which Garcia and the Mayor announced an additional $170 million in investment which will go to supporting food banks, soup kitchens, DOE grab-and-go meals, home delivery, and other contingencies. It's an unprecedented undertaking in the face of skyrocketing unemployment, mass restaurant closures, and citywide economic uncertainty.
"Here’s what I know about New Yorkers," wrote Garcia in the Feeding New York Report. "We thrive in a challenge, we don’t leave each other behind, and we love to eat. During the COVID-19 public health crisis, we are being tested on our ability to keep our city fed while still staying safe behind closed doors."
Garcia says this crisis is unlike any other our city has faced. "After Hurricane Sandy, after the 2003 blackout, and after 9/11, the directive was always the same: Go out and celebrate the city we love, support our local businesses, and stand shoulder to shoulder with our heads held high. Today, our survival depends on doing precisely the opposite — on staying away from one another, sequestered indoors unless absolutely necessary. How do we do that while still ensuring that every New Yorker has enough to eat?"
While Garcia doesn’t have a statistic on restaurant closures—she says it will probably be some time before the city can determine a reliable count—a recent survey by the NYC Hospitality Alliance of 1,870 restaurants, bars and nightclubs – found 67,650 employees laid off or furloughed since Friday, March 20th when Governor Cuomo signed the "New York State on Pause" executive order mandating that non-essential businesses must close or provide delivery or takeout food only. But Garcia says that the City is doing whatever it can to continue getting food to restaurants that are doing takeout or delivery, and to make sure that supply that can't go to restaurants because of closures is rerouted to grocery stores or other outlets.
I spoke to Garcia by phone about her goals for New York, how to make sure everyone in need is fed, what the city is doing to protect grocery workers, what restaurants might look like post-pandemic, and what we all might do when this is all over.
Andrea Strong: Before we get into the nitty gritty, I'd love to know a little about you. Where did you grow up and go to school?
Kathryn Garcia: I am from Brooklyn. I grew up in Park Slope, where I still live just two blocks from my mother. I went to public school in Brooklyn all the way up through college and then I went to University of Wisconsin.
AS: Were you always interested in public service?
KG: Yes, actually. I interned at the Department of Sanitation right out of college and did a short stint at the Department of Finance in enforcement and realized that was not for me. I went to the private sector and rejoined public service in 2006 in the Department of Environmental Protection and moved to Sanitation 2014. It’s been busy there too. Even in a pandemic people produce garbage. We are still collecting everyday and keeping streets clean and working to get rid of waste in an environmentally responsible fashion.
AS: Were you surprised to be tapped to take on the role of Food Czar? It doesn’t seem that you have a background in food?
KG: Yes, it was surprising in that sense, but I am an operations person and I know how to stand up programs and deal with logistics and foster relationships and all of those skills go to making sure we can feed people. I am very fortunate to have an amazing team. You are only as good as your weakest link.
AS: As the city’s first Food Czar, what are your goals?
KG: My goals are to make sure everyone in need has access to food of course. We are doing this by supporting our pantries as well as increasing access to DOE grab and go meals, and by investing in home delivery because we created a new population of vulnerable older people who were independent and now who really should not leave their homes.
We have also spent a lot of time thinking about how to ensure that as we go through this we keep that supply chain strong.That means making sure that food can continue to come into New York City. Ninety percent of our food comes into our city by truck. To support these workers, and get them the rest they need, we have opened two rest areas for long haul truckers, one is in Staten Island and another is at Hunts Point.
AS: What about food shortages in the supply chain? Are we doing okay?
KG: Yes. But, our food supply chain is used to predictability; it knows that on Thanksgiving people will buy turkeys. With this pandemic, we had panic buying and people buying all sorts of things they don’t usually buy — lots of things like peanut butter, flour and canned goods. That has been a shock to the system and it’s now fixing itself.
The supply chain is also having to adjust to restaurants being closed. Forty percent of our food went to restaurants and we have seen wholesalers changing their business model to sell directly to consumers and to supply grocery stores.
AS: What about grocery workers?
KG: We are supporting grocery stores and their employees and keeping them protected. We are asking everyone shopping to be wearing face masks and socially distancing because the folks stocking the shelves and at the registers are some of the most important people in our food-supply chain right now.
AS: Are you supplying grocery store workers with PPE?
KG: The city is working to match grocery stores with vendors to buy masks or to match them with our donations we have received. But we also have to direct medical PPE to frontline healthcare workers.
AS: Food insecurity for instance has always been a huge problem for this city, and now even more so with so many jobs lost, how are you working to ensure that if we face another pandemic we can mobilize quickly?
KG: We are starting to think about the lessons learned and this is what we need to galvanize and invest in to make sure that we can stand up emergency feeding even faster, but also to be more independent. One of the things we are working on is how to be connected to our regional producers and farmers to make us more resilient.
AS: The restaurant business is an industry that has been completely decimated. Are you involved in supporting this community at all? If so, how?
KG: We are thinking about how we could incorporate the restaurants into what we are doing and trying to figure out logistically where we can use their talents. We feel that as we move forward and try to meet cultural and dietary requirements —so preparing meals that are more culturally-relevant like Asian and Kosher meals. Halal meals are already offered. We think that as we get into meeting those needs we will have space for restaurant workers to get involved. (Restaurants in need can also look at these resources.)
AS: What about hiring back-of-the-house workers for school food?
KG: At the moment school food has been able to meet its mission on its own and it is getting stronger. In other workforce matching efforts, the City Department of Small Business Services is trying to help groceries by finding and hiring people so that they can focus on the work of running their stores and not spend time doing human resources work.
AS: I recently read Governor Gavin Newsom making some predictions about what restaurants will look like after the pandemic. He said he can imagine waiters wearing gloves and face masks, tables spaced far apart, and customers having to have their temperature taken before coming inside. What do you see the future of restaurants in the city looks like?
KG: I have no idea what reopening looks like. I hope that we are more back to normal than what he describes, but it may be that the road back to normal happens in steps. The first step may be waitstaff in face coverings and customers having their temperature taken and then as we get to lower and lower transmission rates, and then no transmissions, that changes.
AS: Looking across the country, are there any national examples that you looked to for guidance?
KG: Unfortunately, we are far more impacted than anyone else in the country and because of that people really don't want to go out. Because of that we were also thinking about food almost from the get go.
What is also different about New York City is that we are a city of pedestrians. We would never be able to do what I have seen in other cities, which is food being dropped off in big parking lots to people who stay in their cars. It’s a lot easier to socially distance when you are driving up and someone puts a box in your car. But we have a lot of taxi drivers who have been able to help with deliveries, which has been great.
AS: Yes! I have been really impressed with the way the city has partnered with DoorDash and enlisted taxis too, to get meals to homebound individuals.
KG: Yes, we have hired 11,000 taxi drivers and we are going to continue to expand our capacity to meet the growing demand. These drivers are making contactless deliveries to homebound seniors and COVID-vulnerable populations six days a week. Each includes four meals for up to two residents per household. Anyone who meets the criteria can go to nyc.gov/getfood or call 311 and say "Get Food."
AS: Can you see through to the end of this and how do you see our food system will be changing?
I think that it’s very difficult to predict. What I do know is that it will be very driven by what consumers decide. By that I mean do we come out of this with a 1920's philosophy where everyone is out every night going to restaurants and every day is spent to the fullest, or do consumers take on more of a Great Depression-era attitude of hunkering down and being thrifty. I spoke to one person who said she wants to have the fanciest wine and caviar. That’s one perspective. To enjoy every moment of every day. But there are also folks who are just anxious and concerned and not sure they will leave the house again. I think it can go either way and that will be a driver of what happens to food in NYC.
The other factor to recognize is how much do you miss people? Do you come back and want to have brunch with everyone you have ever known? I know I miss people! I would really like to see as many people as I can when this is over. And when I see people, in my world, and I think for most people in our city, that is done with food.
AS: Let’s imagine this is all behind us for a moment, what are you looking forward to doing most that you can’t do now?
KG: I am going to go on vacation. I am having brunch with everyone I know. And I would love a manicure and pedicure.