At noon, they slowly trickled into the church’s parking lot, where volunteers handed out bags of groceries and warm meals. The line for the food distribution quickly wrapped around the entire block.
The event was organized by the church and Queens Together, a nonprofit organization formed to tackle food insecurity and address concerns of the local restaurant industry. Jonathan Forgash, the group’s co-founder and executive director, worked with Queens resident and realtor Manuel Vargas to raise money for the food pantry at First Baptist Church.
“They went from serving 100 families a week to 500 a week because of the crisis,” Forgash said. “They are not getting the recognition that others are getting.”
Altogether, Vargas raised over $3,300 through Queens Together’s online fundraiser. However, when Forgash went to meet Reverend Patrick Young, the church’s pastor, he realized they could use more.
So Forgash hosted another online fundraiser, raising an additional $3,000. Altogether, Queens Together collected $8,000 to pay seven local restaurants and a tortilla maker to produce 700 meals and 500 pounds of tortillas.
“We paid them, so they all made real money for their bills, employees and rent,” Forgash said. “They all showed up themselves to deliver the food.”
The organization also purchased a used commercial refrigerator from a restaurant that was shuttering one of its locations and donated it to the pantry.
One of the participating restaurants was The Queensboro in Jackson Heigths. Co-owner Dudley Stewart said they have been working with Forgash since before the pandemic, so when he asked for contributions, Stewart and his partners jumped at the chance.
Stewart said it was devastating that so many people have to wait on line for food distribution events, which he believes speaks to how poorly the government has handled the pandemic and how weak the safety net is in the country.
His own establishment is not doing well, Stewart said, and like many restaurants, it is struggling to stay open.
“We’re lucky, we have a lot of support from our community,” Stewart said. “We’re a neighborhood restaurant, so we’re not dependent on tourism or office workers like so many others in Manhattan.”
The Queensboro was helped by the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) at the start of the pandemic, and Stewart said he’s looking forward to the next round of the program. If it wasn’t for PPP, the restaurant would have gone under.
Despite the struggles, Dudley said he believes their mission is still to give back, especially when it comes to food.
“Me and my two partners, we believe that restaurants are here to feed the people,” he said. “It’s not just a business, it’s a community space.”
Forgash, a former chef, said the “number one overhead” for restaurants is rent. He believes landlords deserve relief so they can then also give their commercial tenants a break.
He urged both Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who effectively shut down most commerce during the pandemic, to also meet the responsibility of supporting struggling businesses.
“They have the responsibility to support the businesses so they can make it through until they lift the sanctions, but they’re not doing it,” Forgash said. “They’re not here for these people.”
Pointing to the line of people wrapped around the block, Forgash said the demand for food is “nonstop.”
“It’s like this every Saturday,” he said. “There’s not enough food, there’s not enough relief projects.”
Reverend Young, the pastor of First Baptist Church, said his institution has been doing food distribution for the past decade. He first noticed an uptick in demand last March.
While the church typically served 200 to 300 people on Saturdays, they began giving out 800 meals during the pandemic. On one Saturday in particular, the church gave away 2,100 meals. Young said the line that day stretched one mile.
“Everybody got served something. It may not have been as much as the first round, but they got something,” he said. “They didn’t wait to get nothing.”
Young credits community partners like Councilman Francisco Moya, local businesses and organizations like Queens Together for providing support for the work they do, which he noted has made an impact.
On the first Saturday last August, Young recalled being approached by a man who had tears in his eyes. He told the pastor that the church helped his family “make it through this pandemic” thanks to their meal giveaways.
“We turned our chapel into food storage,” Young said. “Our church has moved from not just a place of worship, we’ve now become a mission station in the community.”
Congregants have not met in person and will not until around April, Young said, who noted that they tape worship services on Sundays. In the meantime, Saturdays, as well as Wednesdays, are dedicated for mission work and feeding the community.
In addition to food distribution, First Baptist Church collected and gave away 1,000 toys in December, as well as 500 new tennis shoes over the summer.
This month, until January 26, the church is collecting new coats with a goal of giving away 500 winter jackets. Young noted that the church is partnering with a local Burlington Coat Factory, which dropped off 60 coats on Saturday.
Between January 11 and 15, the church is also serving as a COVID-19 testing site in collaboration with the city.
In addition to donating the new refrigerator, which Young said will be helpful to store excess food, Forgash has been linking community restaurants with the church, the pastor said. Young said he hopes to continue building those business, faith and community relationships.
“They didn’t know our story, and now they see what we do,” he said. “Now it’s like creating a family.”