For the first time since its inception four years ago, the Pay-it-Forward program will be unable to provide its usual boxes of holiday food to Island neighbors most in need, due to the abrupt closing of its long-time supplier, Family Food Ministries. Lynne Shinozaki, who launched the program back in 2015, said, “It’s really heartbreaking. We’ll try to figure out something to do to save it.”
After learning of the death of an Island neighbor of starvation a few years ago, the Roosevelt Island Residents Association’s Social, Cultural & Education Committee, led by Shinozaki, launched the Pay-it-Forward program to ensure such a tragedy would never happen again. Reaching out to the Island’s medical and religious communities, Pay-it-Forward committee members built a list of food-challenged neighbors. Then, with the help of those same religious communities and with contributions from generous individual donors, they distributed holiday boxes of food to Island neighbors most in need.
Shinozaki describes the relief they gave as “so valuable.” The big message that she believes was sent by Pay-it-Forward to these Islanders in need was that the community cares. In her view, it is important to be supportive of the Island's most vulnerable individuals.
She recalls that in one of her first deliveries, a woman answered the door, and when she realized she was getting a box of food she started sobbing and explained, “I was trying to decide whether to buy my granddaughter a Christmas gift or buy food.”
The food boxes delivered in previous years could feed a family of four for a month. The recipients varied in their need, from 12-15 fully homebound people, to 60 who Shinozaki described as having “extreme need” in terms of food - only tolerating soft foods like soups and jello, and every variation in between. In their second year, 2016, they assembled and delivered boxes to 80 Roosevelt Island households. Last year, they donated about 120 boxes to families, couples, and individuals.
This point in the year would typically be spent on logistics – seeking volunteers, vetting who stays on their list or who needs to be added - and fundraising. According to program chair Sara Metzidakis, funding in years past has come from individual donors, building management companies, retail and restaurant owners, and religious organizations.
Following the loss of their primary food supplier, Metzidakis says they didn’t give up on this year easily. She emphasizes that “committee members worked hard to make it happen, calling various charities, politicians, and others who we thought might be able to help.” Wengerd Farmer’s Market offered fruits and vegetables for 100 boxes, but without an alternative supplier to provide a month’s worth of pre-packaged/sorted food at a price comparable to their previous supplier, the enterprise was simply not doable. “We do not have food storage capabilities” to allow the delivery of some of the food in advance of distribution, explains Shinozaki. “None of the other options we looked at worked because we just don’t have the infrastructure or the people-power to make them happen.”
Pay-it-Forward has always prided itself on being of the Island, for the Island. In previous years they partnered with the Girl Scouts, who not only helped them deliver the food, but also wrote cards and decorated bags to make the gift that much more special. Volunteers would spend a day helping sort food packages, decorate boxes, and deliver presents to our Islanders in need.
The week before delivery of the boxes, like Santa, they were busy checking their list and organizing their boxes by building, separated by apartment numbers. In an effort to protect privacy, none had a name. However, each box of food delivered by volunteers from Girl Scouts, DASH, or other community volunteers, included written greetings "from your friends and neighbors on Roosevelt Island.”
Metzidakis remains hopeful. “It is really sad that we are unable to provide these gifts this year but we will start planning to restart the program in the future.”
Islanders hoping to give locally during the holiday season still have options. Other Island organizations, including the Roosevelt Island Navigators and the Disabled Association Support for the Homebound are seeking donations.