The Grand Central Food Program Responds to the COVID Crisis

The Grand Central Food Program (GCFP) was founded in 1985 the day after a homeless woman died of starvation in Grand Central Terminal.  This memory of a homeless person starving on the streets of NYC is embedded in the fabric of the program.  It is why we have never missed a night of providing meals to the men and women living on the streets of NYC since that day.

Delivering between 800 and 1,200 meals every single night of the year takes tremendous effort in the best of times, let alone during blizzards, blackouts, hurricanes, etc.  But each and every night the Grand Central Food Program has answered the call.

It’s simply not possible without a small, almost fanatically devoted kitchen staff that literally walks to work at the crack of dawn in the worst of times.  When the City shuts down, they are there in the early morning hours meticulously preparing the stew that will feed hundreds of hungry souls at the end of the day.

It can’t be done without an immensely capable Program Assistant and remarkably committed Part-time Drivers lugging 80 lb. crates of stew, fresh oranges, milk and bread up a small flight of stairs and onto Coalition vans.  Then delivering them – no matter the conditions – to the first stop of the night, St. Bart’s Church, and helping to compassionately serve the food they carried.

It’s impossible without an entire army of volunteers who come again and again and again – many on the same night of the week for years and years – to deliver the food to the same 25 stops we make every single night.

But most of all, none of it is possible without Juan De La Cruz. 

man in mask in front of white van with letters saying feeding the hungry housing the homeless

Juan De La Cruz, Director, Grand Central Food Program

Juan has been the Grand Central Food Program Director for nearly 15 years.  He oversees the preparation and delivery of the food, the social services; he coordinates vendors, partners, sponsors, volunteers – all of it, 365 days a year.  Of course, we already knew that Juan was exceptional.  We’ve had the privilege of watching him in action, day-in and day-out – never once wavering.  And then came the Coronavirus pandemic. 

As we have all been reminded in the last couple months, food is essential – and the people who provide the food for us have become part of the heroic fight of essential workers, risking everything so that we can eat, stay strong and survive.  That is literally what our Grand Central Food Program does – now more than ever. 

Because we are a mobile food program we were uniquely set up to balance the desperate need for food with the grave demands for social distancing.  This is not to say that adjustments were not needed, but Juan quickly and continuously made critical changes to adhere to the latest guidance, making every effort to keep our clients, volunteers and staff as safe as possible.  And as the tragedy of the last several weeks unfolded and many other providers were forced to shut their doors, our numbers grew exponentially.

At just one of the 25 stops where we typically serve an average of 180 people this time of year, we saw the number jump to 273 on March 16th.  Ten days later we were up to 324 men and women.  On March 29th, we served more than 400 people – at just one of 25 stops.  Still, the humanity on display there can take your breath away – and it all starts with Juan.  Warm smiles, kind words and friendly jokes back and forth – it’s not uncommon to hear the sound of laughter in the midst of unthinkable stress and suffering.  But the kindness is also in the space given to be upset or fed up with the inhumanity of what it otherwise means to live on the streets – the patience that allows for someone having a bad moment or day to walk away with a nourishing meal and to come back again tomorrow.

Demand has jumped on other GCFP stops as well – many doubling in the span of a few short weeks.  Our overall meals served has increased 40% since the middle of March.  Still, it’s clear we will need to add more and Juan remains convinced we can, unwilling to let people go hungry when they need us most. 

Juan has been on the front lines every single day and night of this crisis – handing out food, hand sanitizer, soap, and sleeping bags.  He’s spent his time shopping during the day to buy clothes for clients who didn’t have anything clean to change into, has been on countless conference calls as he simultaneously preps to serve our evening meals, and has played an integral role in large-scale advocacy for our clients to have basic access to food, water and bathrooms.  Yet, somehow through it all he is still the same Juan – calm, evenhanded, resourceful, tireless, compassionate, witty, patient, kind, etc., etc. 

In short, we have been in absolute awe of Juan’s courage and strength throughout this crisis – and more than anything, we want to publicly say, thank you Juan.  You are as essential as they come.  You are essential to the people we serve, to the Grand Central Food Program, to the Coalition for the Homeless, and to the City and State of New York.  And we know of at least 1,000 people who will swear by it on any given night of the week.

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