The community quilt that we call New York is finally unfolding, and we’re more than ready to welcome her back — particularly so we can eat at our favorite restaurants again.

Though COVID-19’s true impact on New York city dining remains unknown, some optimism is returning as restaurants begin turning on their lights (and grills and brick ovens) for indoor service once again. But even through their struggles, restaurants and community organizations still turned their efforts toward another vital enterprise, one that helped the city tackle a food-insecurity situation exacerbated by the pandemic.

All across New York, restaurants large and small partnered with non-profit organizations, or developed their own creative plans, to source, cook and deliver food to those who need it most. According to City Harvest, the organization that began New York’s food-rescue movement, food insecurity increased among New York residents by 38 percent in 2020. One in four children lacked access to food, City Harvest reported.

Further, Food Bank NYC saw a 91 percent increase in visits to its Community Kitchen in Harlem at the pandemic’s height. Leslie Gordon, Food Bank NYC’s president and CEO, said that “this is need unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”

Food Bank NYC responded by delivering a record 100 million meals in New York during 2020. That included 23 million pounds of fresh produce. Because community kitchens and pantries also closed during the pandemic, Food Bank NYC established a series of partnerships at locations where the need was most urgent. Food Bank NYC reported that these partnerships helped deliver three times more food than in 2019 — and will continue to grow.

Many New York non-profits raced to develop their own action plans. City Harvest helped to open 29 emergency food sites across the city. The organization located some of the sites near hospitals to feed frontline healthcare workers.

In April of 2020, Rethink Food, which repurposes excess food from New York restaurants into nutritious meals, launched a unique program that serves two purposes. Rethink Certified helps feed underserved communities while supporting restaurants during the shutdowns.

Restaurants opened their kitchens and welcomed back staff to prepare meals for donation, and Rethink Food provided them grants to support operations costs and pay staff. According to Rethink Food, the program invested more than $10 million into New York restaurants and served 2.5 million meals.

Elsewhere, Citymeals on Wheels met its annual goal of delivering more than 24,000 meals at Christmas to elderly New Yorkers, some of whom found themselves even more disconnected during the pandemic. Welcome to Chinatown adopted a series of pandemic-related initiatives; their “Greens for Good” program sourced nearly 8,000 pounds of fresh produce, and a dumpling drive fed hundreds. The organization also introduced a self-guided walking tour that led foodies on a Chinatown exploration within COVID-19 guidelines.

Hundreds of restaurants contributed to the cause, even while shuttered or operating at drastically reduced scales. For instance, Eleven Madison Park extended its partnership with Rethink Food by launching a food truck that will serve about 400 meals per day in communities of need. Diners will help fund the project by eating at the Michelin-starred restaurant.

Eleven Madison Park began its pandemic-response program in 2020. Restaurant co-owner Daniel Humm, who co-founded Rethink Food, transformed his closed restaurant into a kitchen that produced 3,000 meals per day for frontline workers and those facing food insecurity.

Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, which includes more than a dozen New York restaurants, last summer converted three of its venues into community kitchens to prepare meals in the South Bronx. 

The Thai restaurant Wayla launched “Lunchboxes 4 Neighbors,” turning diners into donors by asking them to give $5 to fund a lunchbox. At Red Rooster in Harlem, a weekday lunch program distributed free meals in the community.

Junzi, which has several New York locations, introduced “Share a Meal,” which gives diners ordering takeout a chance to provide meals for frontline healthcare workers. And in April 2020, Tacombi, a popular New York taco chain, launched the Tacombi Community Kitchen to produce healthy meals in several communities. Tacombi says the program has served more than 100,000 meals.

These restaurants weren’t alone in opening their hearts during this trying time. Countless New Yorkers across the city lent them support by making a donation, ordering takeout, or dining on-site. So many people and organizations in New York are doing good by making sure everyone can access fresh, nutritious food. 

If you want to learn more, and perhaps pitch in, check out the Hunter College Food Policy Center list of organizations that could use our help and its neighborhood resource guide for those in need.

Let’s eat again, New York — and let’s continue to be good neighbors as well.