Volunteers formed a human assembly line in the basement of a Williamsburg church on a recent morning, donning N95 and surgical face masks and sanitized latex gloves as they filled to-go containers with meals.
It was a seemingly normal operation for the North Brooklyn Angels, a group that has been feeding Williamsburg and Greenpoint for about three years, but with the restrictions of the coronavirus binding them, the non-profit had to adjust to packing hundreds more meals, creating a network to feed local health care workers and making sure every step of the operation was safe for everyone involved.
Before the North Brooklyn Angels were forced to face a global pandemic that has left millions of New Yorkers unemployed, they drove 1,200 lunch meals a week to five different locations in the community with their bright blue truck, the Angelmobile. Designed in California, the vehicle is equipped with steamers and refrigerators to readily serve food from its service window.
The Angelmobile was a gift of community leaders Elaine and Norm Brodsky, according to Paul Samulski, president of the North Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce and daily volunteer.
Now producing at least 1,800 meals a week, the Angels are forbidden from serving out of the truck due to social distancing rules and have adapted to offering pre-packaged meals for passersby to pick up from a sidewalk table.
Angels co-founder John Merz said he and the other members of the Angels were initially worried about not having enough food and questioned if their kitchen at Our Lady of Mount Carmel would be closed. But the governor deemed the group an essential service and local businesses and residents have stepped up to donate the necessary supplies to meet the organization’s new demand.
“People work incredibly hard and well together in situations like this, selflessly, and the best ways of doing things just rise to the top,” said Merz, who is the vicar of the Church of the Ascension in Greenpoint as well. “People are desperate right now to feel connected and we have to find ways of being able to connect and meet needs safely and so far we feel like we’re doing that.”
Lewis Schiff works in the kitchen and drives the truck to the Cooper Park Houses on Thursdays, where he said residents have used the food drop-off as a moment of respite from their self-quarantine.
“In its own awkward way, because they’re social distancing, there’s a lot of rejoicing because they see us, they come out, they see each other, they don’t hug or anything, but they wave and they awkwardly laugh about the moment … and it’s because our big blue truck shows up,” Schiff said.
One of the things that galvanized North Brooklyn Angels originally was gentrification in the area, said co-founder Neil Sheehan. By having a mobile soup kitchen, they could go to the areas of the community that needed meals and recruit volunteers from around the neighborhoods as a way to get people of different backgrounds interacting with each other, while providing aid.
“The concept here is to give the people of the community, particularly the people who are well-off, a way to deal with their guilt about gentrification and a way to actually meet each other,” Sheehan said.
For new volunteer Zachary Realberg, recently laid off from his job as a bartender, the Angels were a way to donate his newly-acquired time while contributing to the battle against the virus. For the past three weeks, he’s been helping in the kitchen Monday through Friday.
“I lost my job as a result of coronavirus and I just felt an overwhelming need to do something productive,” Realberg said. “I might as well do something that is helping the greater good if I have all this time on my hands.”
In addition to the increased demand for their meals, North Brooklyn Angels decided in a Zoom meeting on April 2 that they could deliver meals to health care workers at Woodhull Hospital.
Blair Papagni, a board member for the Angels, volunteered to open her restaurant Jimmy’s Diner back up, re-employing five kitchen staffers, to cook the meals.
And on April 6, the group got cooking and are now providing 450 meals a day, seven days a week to hospital employees for the project they’re calling Operation Neighbors Feeding Heroes.
“When we had to close, I felt the weight of the responsibility of knowing that all of these people support themselves and their families through me giving them a job and I was no longer able to do that and I really felt terrible,” Papagni said. “Being able to take the boards off the windows … being able to turn the lights on and do what a restaurant should do, which is put out food whether or not people are paying for it, feels fantastic.”
Since North Brooklyn Angels decided to run the hospital deliveries, donations of food and money have continued to pour in. The group eventually set up a GoFundMe page specifically for the Woodhull service that had raised more than $27,000 as of Monday morning.
As volunteers pack more and more meals into the Angelmobile, the crew at Jimmy’s Diner cooks through the day and delivery drivers cycle back and forth to the hospital, Papagni says she hopes the network continues to grow and that she can get the kitchen of her Greenpoint restaurant, Anella, back up and running to meet the challenge of the day.