NEW YORK — Outside the First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem, a line starts forming at about 9 o’clock every Friday morning. Unattended shopping carts stretching 50 feet down the sidewalk stand as placeholders, cordoned off by dirty yellow twine held up between two stanchions.
Across from the carts in the shade of the church’s eave, senior citizens occupy fold-up chairs they have brought with them for the wait. Some read. One person plays a scratch card, while another woman in a purple sweatshirt and wool hat sits and sings hymns from the bible.
They are waiting for donated food, and there now are more people lining up than anyone can recall — a sure sign of troubled times.
The weekly food pantry at First Corinthian Baptist has been part of the church’s community service programs for well over a decade, but over the last two years, the lines have gotten longer, and the people coming for help have gotten younger, staff members say, due to the unemployment crisis.
Among African Americans — the dominant ethnic group in Harlem — the unemployment rate reached 16.7 percent, according to the Labor Department, nearly double the level of late 2007, when the Great Recession officially began.
“Ten years ago, it was mostly seniors who would come,” says Dorothy Clark, the church cleric. “But we are in an area where there is a lot of unemployment, and the need for the food pantry has clearly grown.”
In much of the nation these days, local governments are grappling with declining revenues and budget cuts, reducing social services for people short of food and housing. But the scene outside this church in Harlem attests to the organic response seen in many communities. People are coalescing at institutions of local importance — not least, black churches — where those able to help are assisting those in need.
On this recent morning, owners of the unattended carts mingle, chat, chase their children, lean against a lone sidewalk tree and give hugs to those they know who are just arriving.
Around noon, volunteers in blue shirts begin to hand out sandwiches and carrots, milk and yogurt with granola in the cap.
Eight-year-old Adelmaria Berea is here today with her mother, who is deaf and unemployed. “My mom doesn’t work because nobody understands her sign language,” Adelmaria says, perched on the curb with a newly acquired dry erase board and marker. She’s using it to practice her writing so she’s ready when she starts second grade next week.
A volunteer asks Adelmaria if she’d like some milk. “Just chocolate, please,” she replies.
Adelmaria speaks English, Spanish and sign language, and helps her mother make sure they get the food they need. They come often, though Adelmaria cannot say if it’s every week.
This week, she is especially pleased to be here: The church is clearing out some of the books, DVDs and other literature it no longer needs, and has set up a table for the people to peruse and take what they like.
“Today is a good day,” she says. “You can get books too!” Her mother comes over, smiles and signs to Adelmaria that it’s time to get in line.
Those who frequent this food pantry favor it because it hands out a commodity in short supply at many such places: fresh produce.
“A lot of the food pantries just give you canned food, bread, starch, no meat or fish, and if they do, it’s bad,” says a woman in her late 40s who asks that she not be named, citing family issues.
She is in need of assistance, she says, because she was laid off from her job in customer service in September 2009, an event that triggered a downward spiral. Without a paycheck to pay the rent, she was evicted from her studio apartment in the Bronx — her home for a decade. She landed in transitional housing for over a year, before finding a rent-subsidized one bedroom apartment for only $215 a month.
“Before I became unemployed, I ate really well — steamed vegetables and whatnot,” she says. “So it’s churches like this that have really helped me along over these past couple of years.”
Just before one in the afternoon, volunteers lay out long tables and begin to set up for the City Harvest truck, which arrives shortly thereafter. Today it brings string beans — about 75 crates of them. Later another truck comes with bread. By then, the regulars lining up against the church wall has doubled.
Nicole Francis joins the end of the line with her daughter, Patrice. It is Nicole’s first time at the First Corinthian Baptist’s food pantry. She and Patrice live in a shelter, and Francis is looking for work as department store clerk, although she’d be happier to find work in a hair salon.
“I’m always looking for work,” Francis says, sounding too world weary for her 21 years. “I like to do hair — weaves and braids — but I would take whatever.”
The food pantry is essential for Francis and her daughter, as the shelter where they live provides no food or clothing or any other resources.
“Basically they just put a roof over our head,” she says.