A Local Food Pantry Goes Digital

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Sometimes life hits hard. Suddenly, you may find you are unemployed, without benefits, with a spouse, three children, and a dog to feed.

Our neighborhood has a couple of programs — aside from WIC and SNAP — where families can get help in an emergency. One of them is the food pantry managed by Reaching-Out Community Services (RCS), founded in 1992 and located at 7708 New Utrecht Avenue.

I first visited RCS a several years ago with a friend, after her husband lost his job the same month their second child was born. Because of his former income and her immigration status, the family didn’t qualify for food stamps.

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Photo by Carmen Molina Tamacas

The woman at the window briefly interviewed my friend, asking for documents, and then waited to be called. She grabbed a shopping cart and the volunteers guided her through the aisles, showing her the food options. My friend grabbed cans of soup, vegetables, pasta, frozen meat, a full bag of apples, a whole ham, and a full box of Chobani yogurt, among other products. It was winter and we ended up trudging back home with heavy bags and boxes.

When I visited again two weeks ago to learn about the organization’s free tax prep for low-income families; the executive director and founder Thomas Neve was busy unloading a big truck of vegetables, taking phone calls, and responding to requests from staff and clients.

I noticed an interesting dynamic in the room: There were no patrons inside the warehouse. Everybody picked up a number, formed a quick line, and then took a seat.

After getting details about the tax help RCS provides to families who earn $62,000 or less, Neve told me how the food pantry uses technology to feed 7,100 families in 16 different zip codes.

“We built a digital program. We realized that the system should be visually attractive, bilingual because the majority of our clients are Spanish-speaking families. It is easy also for the elderly,” said Neve.

Thomas Neve, Director at Reaching Out Community Services (Photo by Carmen Molina Tamacas)

Thomas Neve, Director at Reaching Out Community Services (Photo by Carmen Molina Tamacas)

Six months ago, Neve said, RCS was turning people away due to overcrowding. The process — the line, the tour, the paperwork — used to take a half of an hour for each client, and longer for those who don’t speak English.

The number of people living with food insecurity in Brooklyn in astounding. A recent report by The New York City Coalition to End Hunger notes that more than 500,000 of the city’s very poor live in Brooklyn — more than any other borough.

Neve said it was urgent to find a solution instead of saying “no” to people asking for help. So RCS partnered with the Howard E. Stark Charitable Foundation to create the “digital client choice food pantry system.” The technology cost $4,500 for the screens and computers and $35,000 in total, according to Neve.

Since the new platform was launched four months ago, clients have been exploring the bilingual touch screen. They can choose what produces want based on their profiles: Hypertensive or diabetic clients will pull up low-sodium or fat -free produces. Families without children won’t see baby food. The system also won’t showing products that are out of stock.

The food pantry’s website explains: “This approach, instead of the common bagged programs, results in eliminating food waste, where as our clients can choose food items based on their dietary needs.”

For people with limited digital experience, interacting with machines instead of people can sometimes be confusing. An older Russian woman ordering canned carrots, said she was offered cranberry sauce instead.

But mostly, the program makes lives easier. A grandmother with five kids, who trekked to Bensonhurst from the Bronx, waited 15 minutes for her food. Then she said “thank you” and left.

RCS’ food pantry always needs our support. You can help donating food and your time. Contact Thomas Neve at [email protected] or (917)509-9055.