Food Pantry Worker Feeds Her Community on the Front Lines
By Jesse Vad
As the COVID-19 crisis continues to strain New Yorkers’ access to food, Genesis Mejia is working in the South Bronx to make sure the families in her neighborhood are still eating.
Mejia, 28, food pantry coordinator at the Carolyn McLaughlin Community Center, was born and raised in the Grand Concourse neighborhood of the Bronx where the community center is located. She has worked as the pantry coordinator there since the pantry opened two years ago.
The community center and pantry are operated by BronxWorks, an organization that runs a variety of programs including homeless outreach, senior services and eviction prevention assistance.
Food access has long been a consistent problem in the Bronx. The 2018 NYC Food Metrics Report said over 16% of the population in the Bronx was food insecure.
The pandemic has only exacerbated the issue. With so many out of work due to shutdowns, even more people are relying on food pantries, especially in the South Bronx.
Mejia has seen a steady increase of clients every Saturday when the pantry opens. On a recent Saturday, Mejia saw about 170 clients, almost half of whom were new.
“She works countless hours to make sure this gets done,” said Julie Spitzer, department director of the food pantry. “I’m very proud of her. She’s a young person who’s always willing to do more.”
Mejia works throughout the week so the pantry can function on Saturdays. She is responsible for receiving food deliveries on weekdays, organizing items and handling client registration. On Saturdays she keeps the pantry running, helping clients get the food they need.
The pantry has a variety of foods available from canned goods, cereal and grains to fresh vegetables, fruit and meat.
Even though she comes into contact with hundreds of people through her work, Mejia isn’t afraid. She wears her mask and gloves and continues to work, driven by the opportunity to provide help to her neighbors.
“It’s actually an honor for me to actually be able to give back to the community that I lived in,” said Mejia.
Mejia has developed a relationship with many of the consistent clients of the food pantry. Those who know her are glad to see her still working on Saturdays.
“She’s been helping a lot, especially the elder people,” said Leisy Morales, 53, a patron of the pantry. “She’s good to everyone.”
Morales is disabled and doesn’t work. She relies on multiple pantries for her food but Mejia’s is her favorite. Many pantries don’t operate smoothly and some don’t treat their patrons well.
Morales remembers when she first started going to the pantry two years ago in its early days. She didn’t know Mejia then, and at first thought she was shy. But as time went on, the two became closer.
“When you get to know her, she’s a sweetheart,” said Morales. “She treats you with respect.”
The pantry has had to adjust its procedures to minimize risk during the Covid crisis. When clients arrive at 9 a.m. on Saturdays, they must stand six feet apart. Every 20 minutes, 10 people are allowed into the pantry building. They tell Mejia and her staff what food they want, who then distribute the items to the clients.
Private donations are keeping the pantry afloat for now, but Spitzer said she doesn’t know if they’ll be able to continue operating at this capacity into the future. Donations have helped purchase food and pay some workers. Mejia is still being paid.
Mejia said she doesn’t think twice about continuing her job through the crisis. She believes this work is where she belongs right now.
“I feel like I’ve come into a pantry full of family,” said Mejia.