Dishing Out Food for the Lower East Side

| 16 Feb 2015 | 11:05

Food For Life has been offering free vegetarian meals in Tompkins Square Park since 2005

It's a crisp Friday at 9 a.m. near Tompkins Square Park and there's already more than a dozen hungry New Yorkers queued along Avenue A. The food won't arrive for another hour, but the men and women on line know what's coming is well worth the wait.

Food For Life has been serving hungry New Yorkers at Avenue A and E. 7th Street every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning since 2005. While many of the people who gather are homeless, local residents with financial difficulties also come because the food is free, healthful and tasty.

"I try to go to other places but the food isn't as good, it's always fresh here. That's hard to find when you can't afford to buy food," said Mark Estan, 42.

The demand for food usually grows with the holiday season. But Food For Life organizers say the service is needed year-round.

"New York still has problems with hunger," said Mario Cornejo, reservations director at Sanctuary Guest Suites, who helps to organize and fund Food For Life with profits from the guesthouse he directs.

The problem may be growing: Advocates for the needy fear that the recent federal funding cuts to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, will make it harder for the most vulnerable New Yorkers to get enough to eat, making operations like Food For Life more vital.

"This food is like medicine for social problems," said volunteer chef Adi Purusha.

Kitchari, an Indian dish made from rice, ginger, turmeric, Brussels sprouts and snap peas, topped the menu on a recent morning. Dessert was a raspberry banana cake with vanilla frosting paired with jasmine lemon tea. The lineup usually changes based on available ingredients, usually rotating between pasta and Indian dishes, but the fare is always vegetarian.

Purusha has been cooking food for New York's hungry for the past 15 years, starting at 5 a.m., aided by two or three volunteers. The food is then taken to the corner of Tomkins Square Park and served hot by Purusha and a rotating group of four to five volunteers.

"Usually Monday is our busiest day, since we aren't around on the weekends," Purusha said. "We cook a big pot and serve until we run out or until we have fed everyone on line. Any extra food we have goes to the Bowery Mission."

Food For Life clients see the service as a lifeline during tough times. The Manhattan poverty rate has been hovering at about 14 percent over the last five years. The Lower East Side has the third highest poverty rate in the city: 21 percent, according the city Center for Economic Opportunity.

"It helps me eat healthier than I could afford to eat," John Hall, 38, said as he waited for a second helping. "I'm poor but I still want to eat healthy."

Local businesses donate food and supplies to Food for Life. The Key Food at 52 Avenue A is one of the service's bigger partners, offering fresh vegetables and utensils.

"A guy walked up here not too long ago with a case of bagels, just an anonymous donation from a business," Cornejo said. "Many people in the community offer their help."

That sense of community is bolstered as Food For Life volunteers and clients catch up on local news as they meals are dished out. "I have a job, but I come here anyway. I've met some people through coming here," said Adriano Lozano, 38, while sipping on some jasmine tea.

Food for Life is inspired in part by the Indian custom of offering food to all. "In India when you finish cooking, you ring a bell and say, 'Everyone who is hungry, come eat,'" Cornejo said. "When you cook a meal, you cook for everyone."