Food pantries serving queer New Yorkers during the holidays

GMHC staffer Donna Pine, background, and GMHC Director of Nutrition and Meals Grace Holihen, foreground, pack grocery bags for community members.
GMHC staffer Donna Pine, background, and GMHC Director of Nutrition and Meals Grace Holihen, foreground, pack grocery bags for community members.
Courtesy of GMHC

This holiday season, the high cost of food is driving many people to seek help setting their tables with food provided by New York’s pantries. Kitchens are also providing hot meals for those in need in the city.

Two in five LGBTQ New Yorkers experience food insecurity, according to the 2015 New York State LGBT Health and Human Needs survey, the most recent data available.

According to the Williams Institute of the UCLA School of Law, 22% of LGBTQ adults live in poverty and are disproportionately affected by food insecurity in the United States, according to a series of reports from the Los Angeles-based LGBTQ think tank published this year.

The think tank’s researchers studied LGBTQ poverty during the past decade. Since the pandemic hit, they focused on hunger among LGBTQ people.

The reports found that transgender people, bisexual people, and lesbians were most likely to report not having enough food to eat. Diving deeper into the data, researchers discovered three times as many LGBTQ people of color as non-LGBTQ white people (17% vs 6%) reported experiencing food insufficiency. The pandemic hit the transgender community the hardest, deepening food scarcity that already existed within the community, according to researchers.

Jona, a 26-year-old queer person who is one of the co-founders of Queer Food Foundation — a New York volunteer-based organization — said that the more identities a person has that are outside of mainstream straight society, “the farther they tend to go from security.” Having a home and enough food to eat are just two of the basic necessities anyone needs, Jona said.

“I think that’s just what you need to survive,” Jona said.

Through its Queer Food Fund, the organization supports LGBTQ and queer-friendly pantries and kitchens, like the Ali Forney Center, God’s Love We Deliver, and others around New York City and other cities in the United States..

“These are all organizations that focus particularly on queer community that need food 24/7, 365 [days a year],” Jona said.

The foundation distributed more than $20,000 in grants during the past three years to combat hunger in the LGBTQ community through its fund, according to Gabrielle Lenart, a 28-year-old queer person who is one of the co-founders of the Queer Food Foundation.

Queer restaurants, like TAGMO’s chef and owner Surbhi Sahni, donates meals and provides culinary and hospitality training at Sapna NYC. It’s a part of her broader vision that community is an extended part of the restaurant.

“I feel like as businesses that’s the only way we can sort of can survive,” Sahni said. “I often talk about business being a community and the larger part of communities — it’s [also] the community that is doing well, but it’s also the community that is not doing that well.”

Sapna NYC is an organization serving South Asian immigrant women. Sahni also works with the Queer Food Foundation.

Compounding food insecurity is food access. There are “layers of limitations” and the “very intertwined factors of transportation [and] housing and how it impacts hunger,” Bianca Wilson, a top educator on public policy and social work at the Williams Institute, told Ami McReynolds, chief equity officer at Feeding America and host of the “Elevating Voices, Ending Hunger” podcast.

To reach GMHC’s Keith Haring Food Pantry Program, about 200 people travel from all five boroughs to pick up their grocery bag weekly, said GMHC Director of Nutrition and Meals Grace Holihen.

Holihen, a 27-year-old queer woman, spoke with Gay City News as GMHC’s pantry was getting ready for the holidays. After Thanksgiving distribution, the agency brought back its holiday delivery service to bring bags of groceries and gifts directly to clients’ homes.

“That was a huge hit last year,” Holihen said. “We had some really beautiful holiday cards and thank you cards written by clients.”

Nearly 3,500 clients participate in a variety of GMHC’s nutritional programs annually.

In New York City, the Department of Social Services and Human Resources Administration is working to reduce food insecurity among the city’s LGBTQ population encouraging queer people to sign up with the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, either online or using the app. According to the Williams Institute, higher rates of LGBTQ adults participate in SNAP than non-LGBTQ people.

However queer people find themselves struggling to feed themselves, queer-led and queer-friendly food pantries and kitchens are a lifeline to LGBTQ people. Below are some pantries and kitchens feeding New York’s queer community year-round:

Ali Forney Center

This LGBTQ homeless youth organization provides a 24-hour drop-in center at 321 West 125th Street in Harlem that provides more than 70,000 warm meals and food among other services 24/7 throughout the year for queer youth. Find out how to volunteer here and how to donate here.

Keith Haring Food Pantry at GMHC

GMHC’s nutrition program provides grocery bags with fresh locally sourced produce and eggs as well as pantry staples to clients and the community every Wednesday between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. at 119 West 24th Street. The program also offers grocery vouchers, holiday delivery service, and other food and nutrition programs.

GMHC’s longtime Food Pantry Program and Meals Program plans to reopen in 2023. The hot meal service was shut down at the beginning of the pandemic. GMHC supplemented the absence of the program with the food vouchers that allow clients to shop at local grocery stores.

The pantry needs volunteers to deliver holiday food and gift bags. How to volunteer or contact How to donate.

Iris House

This LGBTQ-friendly center serves women, families, and people from underserved communities affected by HIV/AIDS and other health disparities. It offers a variety of nutritional programs, including hot meals, pantry, food vouchers, and cooking and nutrition classes.

Hot lunches are prepared Tuesdays through Fridays at noon on the second floor at the West Side office at 2348 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard at 7th Avenue between 137th and 138th streets. The freshly cooked meals are served on a first-come, first-served basis. The center also hosts special luncheons to celebrate holidays.

The pantry is open monthly for Iris House clients. Clients must be referred by a partner organization. A family size bag of groceries from the pantry is given out Tuesdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the East Side office (158 East 115th Street) and Thursdays at 2 p.m. at the West Side office.

Additionally, Iris House hosts the West Side Campaign Against Hunger’s mobile pantry van on the second Thursday of the month from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Find out how to volunteer here. and how to donate here.

The Sylvia Rivera Food Pantry at MCC NY

MCC NY offers a monthly meal service and weekly pantry services for community members at the Sylvia Rivera Food Pantry.

Community members can shop the pantry for a bag of groceries from the “client choice” pantry every Thursday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. During the week community members can grab a smaller bag of items during the snack bag distribution, Tuesday through Friday from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. Community members living with HIV/AIDS who have a M11Q can pick up a bag of groceries Tuesday through Friday, 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.

MCC NY’s monthly community dinner is open to all community members on the last Tuesday of the month at 5:30 p.m.

How to volunteer contact, Michael Easterling at How to donate.