(This story was originally published on May 12th, 2020, by THE CITY.)
For many New Yorkers, the COVID-19 quarantine has prompted stocking up and hunkering down.
But some intrepid Samaritans have sprung into action to aid vast numbers of people who can no longer fill the fridge or put food on the table.
All this week, THE CITY is profiling some of the grassroots volunteers feeding those at risk of going hungry, one neighbor at a time.
The Queens Mutual Aid Network, which connects people across the borough in need of groceries or other help with volunteers on their block, sprung into action in March as the coronavirus crisis grew.
By early April, the group’s leaders extended their focus to preparing for Ramadan, Islam’s holy month.
“We were anticipating that this was gonna be a time where people were gonna have a lot of need,” said Rima Begun, who is among the six women who lead the network.
Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset each day during the entire month of Ramadan, which began on April 23 this year. It is meant to be a time of spiritual discipline, self-reflection and increased charity.
The faithful eat twice a day, starting with suhur, a hearty pre-dawn meal to hold them over until they break their fast at sundown, when family and friends gather for iftar — kicked off with a light meal or snack, traditionally dates — followed by prayer. Many Muslims are hosting virtual iftars this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The group prepared supplemental kits, delivered weekly, with Ramadan-friendly foods including rice, oil, besam (chickpea flour), chai, energy bars, “three different types of channa” and, of course, dates.
Almost 100 Queens families, most in Jackson Heights and Jamaica, home to two of the borough’s largest Muslim communities, received their “Ramadan kits” before the holiday started, according to Begun.
Two weeks later, deliveries had tripled.
Culturally Appropriate Fare
The project has given Begun, a 29-year-old tenant organizer, a renewed sense of purpose amid the devastation brought on by the pandemic, which has hit Queens hard, with working-class, immigrant communities bearing the brunt.
“We’re committed to providing culturally appropriate foods,” said Begun, who has made several deliveries in Jamaica, where she lives. “We’ve heard from families who go to schools to pick up their meals, and the only halal options are PB&J sandwiches. That’s not acceptable.”
Since its inception in mid-March, more than 250 people have volunteered with the Queens Mutual Aid Network, purchasing and delivering groceries for their neighbors in need, from Astoria to the Rockaways.
The group — which receives around 45 delivery requests a day — uses social media to connect people needing a delivery with a volunteer who lives nearby. Volunteers are reimbursed for grocery purchases, using money pooled from an online fundraiser, but some insist on donating the goods, Begun said.
Not counting the Ramadan kits, the network has completed more than 830 regular grocery deliveries since March 25 to Queens residents of all backgrounds.
“Sometimes, people hadn’t even talked to their neighbors before, and now they’re making connections because of their mutual aid work,” Begun said. “With the pandemic, a lot of people who are able to are looking for ways to help, and this is one way to literally give back to the community.”