Lines for RIDA food pantry
Each Friday, lines are long for free food at the RIDA organized pantry in the CBN Senior Center.

Guess who came to the rescue for hungry Roosevelt Islanders in the COVID crisis…


My family and I, most likely, are only one of many from Roosevelt Island who are prepared to write about Roosevelt Island Disabled Association’s (RIDA) earnest intent to continue serving the community, primarily through its food distribution (pantry) activities, especially during a crisis when the nation struggles from the Covid 19 Pandemic.

By Rebecca Sucgang Ocampo

Roosevelt Island News

In the spirit of community involvement and cohesiveness, my family – especially our 97-year-old elderly and disabled mother – friends and neighbors recognize and appreciate RIDA’s value.

Lines for RIDA food pantry
Each Friday, lines are long for free food at the RIDA organized pantry in the CBN Senior Center.

“A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever.” John Keats, Endymion (poem), c.1818

Thus, it is only proper that as we write, we trace how RIDA, without expressing hesitation, staged and continue to coordinate and manage an almost insurmountable task of helping all of us cope by providing the most basic need for our survival: FOOD.

As we all know, since its founding in 1985, RIDA continues to implement its general objective of improving the quality of life, especially of vulnerable disabled seniors, elderly, and veterans, through programs of information, education, advocacy for improved health and, better environment.

Its leadership goal is to make RIDA a fully inclusive organization; to welcome and assist individuals with any type of overt or covert disability: physical, mental or emotional impairment that substantially limits the experience of one or more major life activities.

But, by late winter 2020, all RIDA’s social, cultural and physical events and celebrations – indoor and outdoor – aimed at providing relief to members and residents with disabilities to live a more independent and active life were cancelled following a global alarming announcement that an infectious corona virus called Covid19 had become a Pandemic.

The Covid19 Pandemic did not only lead to the postponement or cancellation of public events. Strong public warnings were issued: always wear facemasks, frequently wash hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer and observe distancing.

To curb the rapid spread of and infection from the virus, national government mandated quarantines (curfews, shutdowns, lockdowns, stay-at-home, border control) were enacted forcing restrictions on the movement of people and goods. On March 20, New York State stay-at-home order mandated that 100% of non-essential workforce should be conducted as working from home, except to go to an essential job or shop essential needs.

The beginning of spring registered the largest number of shutdowns/lockdowns worldwide. While on March 26, 1.7 billion people were under some forms of lockdown; by the first week of April, lockdown numbers increased to 3.9 billion people or more than half of the world’s population.

By March end, the United States of America had the highest number of confirmed Covid19 cases in the world; majority in New York and traced to foreign visitors mainly from Europe. By mid April, nearly 300 million people, or about 90 percent of the population, were under some forms of lockdown in the country.

April’s last week breaking news announced that global death toll surpassed 200,000 people and sickened more than 2.8 million worldwide. Photos of empty streets and corridors as well as closed residences and institutions exposed a total global lockdown.

The Covid19 Pandemic, alongside lockdowns and travel restrictions, prevented the movement of aid and greatly impacted food production, alerting a “hunger pandemic”. It was estimated that without intervention 30 million people could die of hunger; or 12,000 people per day could die from COVID-19 linked to hunger by the end of 2020.

Published statements on the impact of lockdowns on livelihoods and food security flooded the media. There was news of widespread supply shortages of essentials like toilet paper, disinfectant and rubbing alcohol; and increased usage of equipment to fight virus outbreaks. Threats of a global food crisis evident from food supply shortages of staples like noodles, rice, bread and vegetables triggered panic buying that led to shelves being cleared of grocery essentials.

Panic buying found to stem from perceived threat and scarcity, fear of the unknown, and coping with behavior and social psychological factors led to distress, anxiety, and family or domestic fights. Data on movements showed rapid declines in public activity – 93% of Americans voluntarily chose to only leave home when necessary.

As the rate of Covid19 infections doubled within days in April, Roosevelt Island residents, agencies and organizations were further thrown into a crippling environment due to the Island’s geographical isolation in the East River and its disconnection from the mainland.

My family and I seemed to have succumbed to a syndrome of fear and stress, deeply concerned that we did not know how and where to get food. My sister and I feared that if we ran out of stock, how could we safely shelter and feed our 96-years old disabled mother?

We did not want to risk going out because we could get exposed to the virus and then affect our already fragile mother. Our tension rose high when we saw the long line of Costco buyers waiting for hours across the river only to find out at the end that there were very few or no essential items left to buy.
We sought information from both the news media and social media. Finally, we heard about meals being distributed at the school beside our apartment building. But we hesitated to go because of fear of exposure as rumor of Covid19 deaths had begun circulating on the Island.

Then an article from the community paper got our attention. It mentioned RIDA, an organization known to us for its service to the elderly and disabled. I rushed for my contact list; found the number of RIDA’s secretary and treasurer (Mary Coleman); and followed her suggestion to call or email the president (Wendy Hersh). I made the contact on April 24 and received a response to register our household for free door-to-door meal and grocery deliveries.

The next morning a volunteer dropped three boxes of dry shelf groceries: macaroni and cheese, veggie chips, rice, nuts, apple sauce, orange juice, grape juice, tuna, bread; peanut butter, snacks, cookies, oat bars, corn bread, noodle soup, and canned sliced peach. And there was one box of fresh produce: oranges, apples, milk, potatoes, and orange juice. A package of dental floss, soap and hand sanitizer was included.

Starting April 25, 2020, the Ocampo Family was saved by the food distribution project sponsored by RIDA aided by RI dedicated volunteers. In a thank you note, I wrote that it had been like two months we had not tasted real fruits. We acknowledged the great job RIDA’s leadership and staff were doing for the community.

Our family was on the list for bags of meals and boxes of groceries delivered every morning for six days. We also received donated colorful cloth masks. What was most important was that our fear was gone; our stress calmed down. All we were left to deal with (and pray for) were the loud sound of ambulance sirens rushing to the hospital across the river to save lives and send signals that friends and families were yet fighting an unknown killer.

As provisions were left at our doorstep, we knew that RIDA held an incredible story about community advocacy and unselfish motivation and organization that saves lives. We started looking for a narrative on how and where RIDA started the endeavor especially since the Senior Center was closed. Apparently, it was turned into a Command Center where leaders and volunteers unloaded, unpacked, arranged, and boxed food donations for delivery.

We discovered that by late winter of 2020, RIDA’s focus and energy shifted to a rapid response of helping a community cope as Covid19 morphed into an alarming and unpredictable public health crisis.

As news about the virus spread and its impact on life and death became a case of uncertainty, a group of individuals belonging to RIDA plotted a scheme to help deliver the community from anxiety, even depression and, to beat the Pandemic with positive energy and concern for others.

RIDA mounted a door-to-door food distribution operation accessible to the homebound at risk from severe bronchitis. The outreach was expanded to include the elderly, disabled, families and children. An immediate focus was to find out who needed assistance and who would volunteer to deliver it. RIDA’s leadership and staff moved ferociously and generated a list of 140 recipients.

Help was vigorously solicited from various like-minded associations to create corps of volunteers involving students and families, donor organizations such as religious relief agencies and food banks, institutions like schools, elected officials, housing management/maintenance personnel, security officers, and facilities/space to shelter and track food donations and deliveries.

RIDA organized and mobilized a massive community-wide effort to provide access to a most basic but vital necessity: food. Truckloads of fresh produce (eggs, dairies, fruits, vegetables, meat); processed grains (rice, cereals, noodles, nuts) and shelf stable goods (juice, jams, snacks) were unloaded weekly at Roosevelt Island, an insulated community.

RIDA’s list expanded to 170 recipients. From April to August, with other civic agencies, RIDA relied on around forty volunteers moving door-to-door eight hours a day delivering grab and go meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner five days a week; 550 bags of groceries every Thursday; and 185 small boxes of shelf stable food every Saturday.

Volunteers as well as residents were requested to deflect or avoid any possible virus spread with PPEs such as, masks, hand sanitizer, soap and even bottled water. Both had to follow local and state guidance on prevention strategies like proper wear of face masks, social distancing, and hand washing hygiene.

After five long rough months dealing with the virus and lockdown, RIDA’s door-to-door food delivery was halted. Instead, a food pantry was set up at the Senior Center where volunteers organized and handed out 200 boxes of fresh produce (eggs, meat, milk) and five to six pallets of dry groceries weekly.

The food pantry was opened to the entire Island where anyone wearing a mask and hand gloves, with an ID and a cart or shopping bag, lined up to pick up groceries from 4-6 pm every Friday. Each participant was subject to a quick temperature scan with a forehead thermometer. Summer 2020 witnessed a steady train of 100-200 carts or families from noon to sundown, rain or shine.

Currently, RIDA’s food pantry is yet again faced with a Covid19 Pandemic declaring a staggering rise in deaths worldwide from 10,000 on March 20 to more than 1.4 million in mid December. Death toll records, which slowly climbed upward since late June/early July, reveal that more than 200 countries and territories have had confirmed cases and more than 150 countries and territories have had people die of Covid19.

Forecasts of infections returning to dangerous levels in New York City may yet again push RIDA to announce changes in its distribution venue and method. There is a desire to move the food pantry to a commercial space equipped with the proper food refrigeration equipment. And perhaps, if feasible with appropriate protective measures and safe distancing, conduct educational, physical and cultural events to help reduce Covid19 fatigue, isolation and distress for its members and friends.

RIDA will continue to disseminate information about its food pantry through two social media Facebook Groups and to extend coverage of its activities and events through two community digital online news blogs.

After having witnessed and gained from RIDA’s initiative and service to the Roosevelt Island Community amidst a rough and chaotic Covid19 Pandemic, how is it not possible for anyone to write with pleasure and appreciation about how a community organization responded to sustain a neighborhood.

Rebecca Sucgang Ocampo
December 24, 2020

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