NEW YORK CITY — A Mexican restaurant at the heart of Mott Haven provided so many thousands of free meals to hungry New Yorkers during the novel coronavirus pandemic that its equipment has started to break down.
“Our kitchen got really beat up after providing so many meals,” Yajaira Saavedra said. “As undocumented folks, we know what it’s like not to have food at our table. We try to help our friends and neighbors as much as we can.”
La Morada faced an uncertain future when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the family got sick, possibly with the virus, and business dropped to 30 percent as the neighborhood — among those hardest hit by the pandemic — rushed for cover to avoid the oncoming crisis, said Marco Saavedra, Yajaira’s brother.
So when family friend Amanda Sommer saw the restaurant’s GoFundMe in April, she assumed La Morada was seeking $45,000 in funds just to keep itself afloat.
“It wasn’t,” Sommers said. “It was to deliver meals.”
La Morada’s efforts come as New York City faces a hunger crisis unlike anything it’s seen since the Great Depression, with about 2 million New Yorkers expected to face hunger this year alone, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio.
More than half of city food pantries and soup kitchens reported running out of food in April, according to a Food Bank for New York City report, and one in four New York City households with kids reported in June that a child had gone hungry for want of cash, a City University School of Public Health survey found.
In response, New York City lawmakers allocated about $21 million for food assistance programs in the city budget and, in June, Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to spend $450 million on food programming.
New York State has pledged $880 million to help New Yorkers with children who once received free meals at schools.
And the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act signed in March included $450 million for food banks nationwide.
But CUNY Professor Nick Freudenberg argues New York City’s hunger problem — which he predicts will hit Black, Latino, low income and elderly communities hardest — is merely the symptom of a much larger and older issue.
“The problem isn’t that we don’t have enough food,” Freudenberg said. “People don’t have enough money to buy food.”
Income inequality is the driving factor behind the hunger crisis, Freudenberg argued, noting that 1 million New Yorkers were food insecure even before the pandemic hit and that food distribution issues, seen earlier in the crisis, have evened out as low-income New Yorkers received cash through the CARES Act.
“I don’t think it’s just access, I think it’s putting money in the pockets and the banks of lowest income New Yorkers,” Freudenberg said.
“Here’s an opportunity to face the income insecurity that’s been an issue in this city for years.”
That’s why Rethink — a culinary nonprofit providing La Morada and 26 other local restaurants with grants to feed their neighborhoods — doesn’t measure its success by the number of meals served, according to CEO Matt Jozwiak
“The way Rethink measures success is how much we invest in communities,” Jozwiak said. “The money stays there, it really does.”
Not only has the nonprofit been able to help deliver up to 100,000 meals weekly to neighborhoods in need, it’s also been able to send between $5,000 and $8,000 weekly to small businesses those neighborhoods cherish, Jozwiak said.
“It’s kinda like a win-win,” he said.
La Morada wasn’t among the first restaurants to join the group, but Jozwiak reached out after he heard the Mott Haven eatery had just gone ahead and started prepping free meals on its own.
“We were just like, ‘These are exactly the kind of people we want to work with,” Jozwiak said.
La Morada now is responsible for serving roughly 5,000, the Saavedra family said.
“Three months into it we’re keeping strong,” said Marco. “But it’s been overwhelming the amount of need that’s necessary.”
La Morada was forced to rely on Rethink’s grant and GoFundMe campaigns after the family’s application for Small Business Authority Paycheck Protection Program loan was denied, the Saavedras said.
“It was definitely very disheartening because big institutions like Shake Shake and Harvard got handouts,” Marco said. “Small businesses, the heart of the economy, are always overlooked.”
But banking on La Morada’s reputation in Mott Haven turned out to be a smart fiscal move, cash came flowing into the eatery’s campaign and, once the kitchen reopened, so came the hungry neighbors.
“On April 14, we opened, and within an hour our food was gone,” Yajaira said. “We continued and every single day our numbers doubled.”
La Marado meals go to neighbors on the days when the gas and the heat goes out in a nearby building, and they go to a makeshift shelter for those recently released from immigration centers near Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point
Sommer, who volunteers every weekend, said of the golf carts and a manicured lawn bearing her president’s name, “That was really hard to see.”
Meals don’t go to the many people the Saavedras have seen taken by the virus.
“We fed a lot of people who were in the hospital, who passed away, or are in the shelters,” Yajaira said. “We continued just serving food and through faith and prayer more than anything.”
But now, as New York City continues its battle against hunger and prepares for a potential second wave in the fall, La Morada needs a new $2,000 stove, a $12,000 walk-in cooler, a $10,000 refrigerator and a $51,000 convection oven, the family said.
The restaurant had raised $7,193 from 80 donors as of Monday. The goal is $90,000.
For the Saavedra, it’s not just about feeding hungry neighbors, it’s about empowering Mott Haven to support itself when overlooked by the rest of New York City.
“Other places get food first,” Yajaira said. “Everybody else gets the leftovers.”
She’d like to see more New York City bars and restaurants — especially those that received PPP loans from the federal government — providing some free meals to their neighbors.
“We have to take care of each other,” Yajaira said. “That’s the only way we’re going to survive and beat this pandemic.”