Stories

Long lines for Coney Island’s most popular attraction: food aid

With supermarkets shut down, residents still rely on relief-center groceries three weeks after Sandy

Even more ubiquitous than the National Grid trucks and boarded up storefronts dotting the streets in post-Sandy Coney Island are the residents pushing wireframe folding shopping carts, walking to and from food distribution centers. With every supermarket on Coney Island still out of commission with storm-related damage, even locals whose dwellings were not hit hard in the storm are turning to relief centers for basic groceries.

“You can’t get a quart of milk, a loaf of bread,” said Rosiland Clark, 59, as she stood Thursday morning in a line that wound its way through the parking lot of the MCU Park stadium and continued along a chain link fence on Surf Avenue. She and her neighbor LaVerne Ghee, 50, were waiting at a city-run relief site to fill their carts with canned food and bottled water distributed by aid workers wearing RestoreNYC jackets. Ghee said they expected to be in the food line for two or three hours.

“There’s no stores, so you have to do what you have to do,” Ghee said.

Both Clark and Ghee live upper floors of the Unity Tower public housing building across the street from MCU Park, their apartments far above the flood line. Clark said they’d gone without power for only a couple of days after the storm.

The two women scoffed at people they saw leaving the parking lot with overflowing carts, skeptical that they needed everything in them. Clark said she’d seen people making multiple trips with their cars.

“People are being greedy,” she said.

The women said they’d rather be shopping at a nearby Fine Fare supermarket location 10 blocks to the west — a favorite of many Coney Island residents standing in line at MCU Park— but that is currently out of the question.

Instead, Fine Fare is closed with storm damage, and its parking lot is currently home to a food distribution center run by Whitsons Culinary Group, a company contracted by the city to provide hot meals at distribution sites.

The city Human Resources Administration continues to distribute prepared meals in Coney Island. Photo: Gianna Palmer

On Friday, an NYPD van idled near a white tent across from the store entrance as city-contracted workers gave out food to nearby residents. White Styrofoam boxes from the city’s Human Resources Administration labeled EMERGENCY FOOD RELIEF were stacked high next to the distribution tent, intended for area residents who still lack cooking facilities.

“We’ve got a lot of hungry people here,” said Peter Bellisario, 52, the manager of the site, as he paused while getting more boxes of food to pass out. Bellisario said his team had begun passing out food at 10:30 a.m. and would close when —not if — they ran out of food.

How long both the MCU Park and Fine Fare parking lot food distribution sites will remain in action remains to be determined, said Evelyn Erskine, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office. “As the needs change in the different locations, we’ll be assessing how long they remain,” Erskine said.

Across the Fine Fare parking lot, caution tape festooned the gate outside the store’s main entrance. Inside, lower shelves stood bare, where the store had flooded, and the refrigeration cases remained empty.

Fine Fare’s corporate office has not responded to inquiries from The New York World about when the company expects to reopen its Coney Island location.

The two Key Foods flanking Neptune Avenue remain dark and in disarray, and their owners do not yet have a timeframe for reopening. On Friday another area grocery, Net Cost Market on Sheepshead Bay Road, appeared to have more people mopping the largely empty store than it had items on its few remaining shelves. A representative reached by phone said they were working to reopen by the end of the month.

Tiny delis, have begun to re-emerge in Coney Island, but most are hardly running at full capacity.

This was apparent to Pheobe Williams, 65, as she tried to buy tomatoes, lettuce and syrup on Friday. The first store she tried had a hand-written “Cash Only now” sign at the register. The manager, Vitaliy Isakov, 34, said he and his co-workers had thrown everything away after the storm’s flooding and had spent three days rebuilding shelves. Williams had to turn away when she learned they weren’t accepting electronic benefit transfer cards.

Across the street, another market was open and accepting food stamps, but far from fully functional. The aisles were cordoned off and still being mopped. An employee restocking shelves was wearing a garbage bag cloak to keep the water off his clothes. Customers were instructed to ask employees to fetch the items they wanted.

After she was able to get her bottle of syrup, Williams laughed when she looked at it.

“Mud is still on the bottle,” she said.

If that mud contained flood water, it likely wasn’t safe for sale. The city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene advises that all food touched by flood water, including packaged food, be thrown out. The department admonishes: “IF IN DOUBT, THROW IT OUT.”

For many Coney Islanders, the nearest major grocery store they can currently visit is the Pathmark across the bay in Gravesend. Few residents still have working cars, if they even owned them before the storm.

Sandra Howell, 53, trudged to Pathmark from her apartment in Coney Island on Friday. After a few days of getting water and food from a distribution site immediately after the storm, she’d grown tired of waiting in long lines. Though the trip to Pathmark was an inconvenience, Howell said she was glad it was open.

“If this were closed, we would be in trouble,” she said.

As Thanksgiving nears, the food distribution centers, including those run by volunteers in local churches, have gone beyond handing out a hodgepodge of canned goods and meals; they’re now nurturing an elusive return toward normal. On Monday, Clark visited a church near her apartment, walking away with a small turkey, a green pepper, broccoli, a box of Jiffy cornbread mix and a five-pound bag of Idaho potatoes. Like much of the food she’s been collecting from the distribution sites, she planned to give it away to friends and neighbors in need.