NYC's First-In Food Team Behind Hyperstorm "Sandy"

by The River Fund New York

The River Fund Response to Sandy

Since our base of operations was not severely damaged when Hyperstorm Sandy arrived, The River Fund immediately jumped into action. The morning after the storm, our team members circumnavigated fallen trees and downed powerlines to report to their posts. With schools closed for the first week following the disaster, our army of youth volunteers was available to support our emergency response efforts in the flood zones. Because these young people normally spend their Saturdays supporting our Onsite and Mobile Pantry Programs, they are well-practiced in our operating systems and understand our culture of service. Adult volunteers, whose places of employment were affected by the storm, also arrived at our base—ready to help fellow New Yorkers devastated by Sandy. Our core team immediately coordinated with local Members of Congress and other elected officials who had access to the best information from the affected areas—and could guide us to those locations where the need was greatest. Here are some photos of our first few days after Sandy. During the month of November alone, we served over 14,000 households in the flood-affected areas.

In the two months immediately following Sandy, The River Fund provided food to more than 87,000 people in the areas affected by the storm. By the end of December, we had shared 323 tons of product to families and seniors in the flood zones—plus another 281 tons to our regular distribution areas. Click here to see some photos of our work. This was a five-fold increase over our usual level of emergency food relief. However, rather than allowing the storm and its aftermath to be a distraction from other aspects of our work, we embraced the need to expanded our activity and ramped up our efforts on all fronts. As a result, the geographical footprint of our impact has increased dramatically: We now have five satellite sites in The Rockaways—down from seven in December, when the need was even more acute. We have also established a fixed site in Coney Island—where we only had a mobile presence prior to Sandy.

While it is indeed great to be able to help tens of thousands of households, it is the personal interaction with individual people that keeps us motivated. One resident of The Rockaways, wrote about us to a representative of The Food Bank for New York City:

  • “My name is Robert Sanchez. I live in Rockaway Park, which is directly on the waterfront that faced the incoming surge from Sandy. My family of four experienced the impact of the storm in a way that was completely unimaginable. In the middle of the night, when it seemed that the relatively mild storm had passed, we suddenly had absolutely no electricity, water or heat. Our food was destroyed. All of our neighbors in the entire area were affected the same way; none of us could help ourselves or each other. My wife was six months pregnant, and my four-year old daughter was terrified. My elderly, disabled Mom, 70 years old, was living with me. The day after the storm, The River Fund was the first group to arrive and offer help. They came in with enough ready-to-eat groceries, water, juice and baby-food to keep everyone going for a week. They gave out blankets, toilet-paper and diapers. The most important thing they gave was hope. And they kept coming back. Thousands of families got help from The River Fund. They stuck with us even when the bigger organizations finally came—and The River Fund stayed beyond December when we finally got our heat and lights back, and most of the big organizations left. They provided hot meals for Thanksgiving and beautiful toys for thousands of kids at Christmas. My family and I will never forget The River Fund.”

Serving More and More People

With our footprint more than doubling in size as a result of the storm, we now have a much larger community to care for, and we are seeing a very strong need for Benefits Access Services throughout our entire territory.

The extreme need for benefits is not necessarily a result of Sandy; the storm simply exacerbated the suffering of thousands of households who were already in poverty, and pushed many families into severe hardship who were barely managing to keep themselves afloat in a harsh economy. Responding to this immense need for benefits-access requires a significant change in our operations. Over the next few months, The River Fund will not only be bringing food to desperate neighborhoods in the flood zones, we are also significantly expanding our capacity to  assist needy families and seniors access as many as 44 available benefits for which they may be eligible. This is being accomplished by converting our Mobile Benefits Outreach system from a vehicle-based work-station model to one that uses a far nimbler and less costly system based on tablet- and notebook-computers. As a result of this shift, we will be able to deploy eight new mobile agents into the field—greatly increasing the number of households we can help every day.

What Happens Now?

For the past fifty years, in response to the growing problem of hunger in New York City, a large network of community-based organizations (CBOs) grew and became established poverty amelioration resources in hundreds of neighborhoods. Like us, all of these groups work very hard to address the problem of food-insufficiency. Although this huge network of some 1,300 pantries and soup-kitchens extends into almost every part of the City, Hyperstorm Sandy exposed severe weaknesses in the system: Most of the areas hardest hit by the storm, were already badly underserved before last October. The number of food programs in the flood zones was totally inadequate to serve the large population of struggling families and seniors. Not only did the storm increase the hardship of those households, it also pushed thousands of new families over the edge who were barely clinging to some semblance of stability.

The River Fund is one of a handful of organizations in New York City with deep experience in poverty amelioration who have committed themselves to supporting a longer term involvement in the Sandy Flood Zones to address the problem of hunger in the area and access to benefits. We must now address the need in New York City’s flood zones no longer simply as a “response to Sandy.” It’s much bigger than that now—and the poverty we are addressing is a long-term systemic issue. As a result, taking care of the Sandy Flood Zones is now part of our ongoing effort to “Confront Hunger, Homelessness and Poverty.” Please continue to support our work in helping those whose lives have been devastated by this storm. Click here to help.


Earlier this month, I had the real pleasure of visiting the River Fund team at their HQ in Queens.  The River Fund performs an amazing service in their community - connecting people with government benefits like food stamps and running a weekly grocery pickup service out of their headquarters building, which is also Project Leader Swami Durga Das' home.  The first floor of the home has been transformed into a client-facing service delivery center, and the garage is a well-stocked food bank.  

When I visited, several people were being served - getting on the official food stamp rolls, and saving hours and hours by working with The River Fund instead of applying directly to government agencies.  The River Fund has a sophisticated tracking system for clients.  They are each given a swipe card so The River Fund can track food preferences and other beneifits received.  The information system was developed in house but will roll out to other food banks.  This mentoring of other organizations is part of how The River Fund sees expanding its impact.

When Superstorm Sandy hit, many of their existing clients were affected.  Without transportation to get to jobs for a week, many lost those jobs permanently.  The River Fund used mobile food units and got to places where people were cut off from regular food sources.  They responded quickly, working with government agencies and other organizations, to coordinate food distribution and delivery.  The River Fund has seen an increase in the number of ongoing clients since the storm, as families struggle with basic necessities. 

I was very impressed by The River Fund's close engagement with their community.  They have a tangible can-do spirit and kind culture of service that's truly inspiring.  I left my visit extremely happy that such a great organization was able to connect with meaningful funding through GlobalGiving.  


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Organization Information

The River Fund New York

Location: Richmond Hill, New York - USA
Website: http:/​/​
The River Fund New York
Project Leader:
Swami Durga Das
Executive Director
Richmond Hill, NY United States

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