Queens lawmakers call for food pantry workers to be prioritized for COVID vaccine

Workers and volunteers at food pantries should be immediately prioritized for COVID-19 vaccinations according to more than 30 state lawmakers. (QNS/File)

Food pantry workers must be immediately prioritized on the list of essential workers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in Phase 1B, according to Assemblywoman Jessica González-Rojas, who represents Corona, East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights and Woodside — several of the neighborhoods most impacted by the pandemic last spring.

In a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo, González-Rojas and 33 of her colleagues urged him to include food pantry, food bank and grab-and-go site staff and volunteers in the current vaccination cycle.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, community members in Jackson Heights mobilized quickly to build a food pantry, the Love Wins Food Pantry. It is still operating today, and I do my best to go regularly to volunteer as I did when it first began to operate,” González-Rojas said. “The volunteers at Love Wins, like the staff and volunteers at food pantries, food banks and grab-and-go sites all around the state, are working hard to address food insecurity in some of our most vulnerable communities. They put themselves at risk each time they serve knowing that they do so to feed our neighbors. We must include these individuals in Phase 1B of the vaccine distribution plan.”

Many essential frontline workers became eligible to receive their inoculations in Phase 1B, which opened in early January and included grocery store and restaurant workers, home care workers, teachers, public safety and transit workers. Despite being designated as essential workers since the beginning of the pandemic, staff and volunteers who work at food banks, pantries and grab-and-go sites providing food to low-income New Yorkers have been conspicuously left off the list.

“Food pantries have been essential to New York City during this pandemic,” Love Wins Food Pantry Co-Founder Daniel Puerto said. “Food pantry volunteers have been feeding hundreds of our neighbors week by week and deserve to have access to the COVID-19 vaccine. As a city hardest hit by the pandemic, it is our duty to show these volunteers that we value and respect their work as an essential part of our recovery.”

According to City Harvest, more than 1.5 million New Yorkers are struggling to feed themselves and their families, a 38 percent increase over pre-COVID-19 figures. One in four children or more are experiencing food insecurity, a staggering 49 percent increase over pre-pandemic times.

“With exploding unemployment and homelessness is New York, the number of food insecure New Yorkers has skyrocketed,” Manhattan Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal said. “Without the dedication and commitment of staff and volunteers at New York’s food banks, pantries and grab-and-go sites, countless New York families would go hungry. Food pantry staff have been risking their health and that of their families to make sure that hungry New Yorkers can feed their families, and it is vital that we immediately prioritize them for the vaccine.”

As a result of the around-the-clock nature of the need, food pantry workers have been hit hard by the pandemic.

“When a staffer or volunteer at a food pantry or food bank tests positive for COVID-19, the entire facility must be closed for cleaning, to allow for the proper quarantine protocols to be followed and to ensure adequate staffing levels,” the lawmakers wrote. “When grab-and-go sites or food pantries are forced to close, New Yorkers and their families will go hungry.”

The letter to Cuomo was signed by several other members of the Assembly from Queens including Ron Kim, Khaleel Anderson, Catalina Cruz, Nily Rozic, Emily Gallagher, Andrew Hevesi, Zohran Mamdani, Catherine Nolan and Daniel Rosenthal.

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