July 6, 2020 By Asha MacKay
A food pantry that is operating out of Astoria that represents the coming together of local restaurants, non-profit organizations and generous residents is swamped with those in need every Thursday when it operates.
Veggie Days Food Pantry, which was started by the newly formed non-profit Queens Together, has been operating a pantry out of the Variety Boys and Girls Club at 30-55 21st in Astoria each Thursday since COVID-19 struck.
The line stretches around the block on Thursdays, when locals in need can get hot meals, fresh produce and bagged dry goods. The emphasis is on fresh produce and that is where Veggie Days gets its name.
Jonathan Forgash, a former chef, and Jaime-Faye Bean, director at Sunnyside Shines, founded Queens Together, now a 501(c)3, at the beginning of the pandemic by bringing together their respective humanitarian and foodie connections to serve communities in need.
The pair started the group by partnering with local restaurants to feed frontline healthcare workers as well as other emergency responders. The concept helped provide much-needed revenue for restaurants while aiding frontline workers. They have expanded their scope since.
The visitors to the food pantry speak mostly Spanish, Arabic and English–with a distinctly Queens accent. They wait in a long line before being served.
“They have hot food, packages, it’s great,” says Sara Puerto, a hair stylist who is unsure when she’ll be back at the salon.
Hanan Mazam, who has four children and an extended family at home, is grateful for the stability that a weekly pantry provides.
Queens College student Alexis Toxbui speaks for his family when he says, “we just need a little bit of extra help sometimes.”
Prepared meals come from nearby restaurants as well as Greentop Farms, a Long Island City-based food and grocery delivery company.
Last week’s giveaway items included tampons from Femstrate, an effort by two high schoolers at the Young Women’s Leadership Academy in Astoria to make period products available in all NYC public schools.
In addition to providing groceries and hot meals onsite, volunteers deliver bags of fresh produce to homebound neighbors. Members of mutual aid organizations and individuals pick up food to distribute across Queens.
The Queens Economic Development Corporation (QEDC) is the fiscal sponsor for Queens Together. Donations made through the QEDC website are fully tax-deductible.
With donations from over 600 donors and tireless volunteers, Queens Together has distributed over 25,000 prepared meals and 100,000 pounds of fresh produce throughout the pandemic.
Many of the people volunteering to package and deliver meals at Veggie Days are themselves in need of a little assistance. “When you empower communities, communities take care of their own,” Forgash said.
Luis Gaguancela, founder of the Facebook mutual aid group “Manos Que Dan Reciben,” knows this firsthand. He was out of work and money at the start of the pandemic and was helped by Queens Together when he was connected with the group through co-founder Jaime-Faye Bean.
Bean helped him out with money and food, which he shared with others in need. Gaguancela now picks up meals at Veggie Days on Thursdays to distribute to a growing list of people in need across the borough. The rest of the week his van is making stops at other food pantries in Queens.
At its core, says Forgash, “the pantry is not really the story. People want to help others, that’s the story.”
Veggie Days represents the generosity of nonprofits, restaurants and individuals looking to do good across Queens.
“We make each other stronger,” Forgash says, adding that the group’s founding principle is that “helping others comes back around.”