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How New Yorkers Are Stepping Up To Take On Coronavirus Challenges


Coronavirus has made the lives of vulnerable people even more precarious. In New York City, it is estimated that 1.4 million residents rely on food pantries and soup kitchens. But with widespread sudden unemployment because of the pandemic, many more people need emergency help to get enough food.

Kathryn Garcia was tapped last week to become the city's food czar for the duration of this crisis. She is also New York City's sanitation commissioner leading all of the city's trash collectors and other sanitation workers. And Kathryn Garcia joins me on the line from New York City. Thank you so much for giving us a few minutes on what I know must be a very busy time.

KATHRYN GARCIA: Yes. Thank you for having me.

GREENE: Can you just explain this role as food czar? What is the job? And what is your mission right now?

GARCIA: So it's really multipronged. And then it's about making sure not only that we are feeding people who are vulnerable or newly vulnerable but also making sure that our supply chains are intact, that our grocery stores stay open, that we are looking towards the future to make sure that we know what's happening in the food manufacturing sector. So it is a very broad role. It's a lot of coordination across different agencies - and also helping to plug in the philanthropic sector where there is other need. So it's very multipronged. And it is requiring a large team to get it done.

GREENE: I mean, I know you talk about grocery stores. And you know better than I do. You have a lot of people in the city who can't even afford groceries. And I know food pantries they often rely on, they're empty right now. Some people are able to get meals through the public schools. But this is a time, of course, where you're not even supposed to be out in the city. I mean, can you speak to how you're making sure that the most vulnerable New Yorkers are able to eat today?

GARCIA: Yes. No, absolutely. So food pantries are open. We did see some closures at the beginning because they tend to rely on volunteers who are older and needed to stay away from the rest of the public. They have made it so that they are social distancing at the food pantries. But you can go online and find a food pantry that is open today. We're in touch with more than 800 of them on a daily basis to make sure that they have the staff they need and that they have the food that they need. At the schools right now, you can go and get meals. This is - we are practicing social distancing at those schools to make sure that it's a grab-and-go situation, that no one is lingering.

In addition, the Department of Aging switched their senior centers to delivery. In addition, we have done some outreach to those who we know are already on edge, sort of folks within the NYCHA (ph) community who are older, over 65, who may have to be staying inside a lot more than before. And we'd done outreach to them and are delivering meals to them, as well. So we are very conscious of how much need is out there on any given day and the need to continuously expand to meet this new demand.

GREENE: What is your biggest fear right now in this new job?

GARCIA: My biggest fear is making sure that people are getting the food that they need - because there is food out there - and that we are coordinated - and the folks, particularly this new group who may not ever have been connected to any government service - that they are understanding that they can access food today.

GREENE: I want to ask you about your other role as the city's sanitation commissioner. Your office warned city residents more than a week ago that there might be delays in garbage pickup, you know, which is obviously a basic need any time, and that includes during a crisis. What can you tell New Yorkers at this point?

GARCIA: So obviously, we are very conscious of our own staff and making sure that they are safe so they can keep New Yorkers safe. And sanitation workers have really been stepping up to fulfill that role. They understand how critical it is. But we want to make sure that people give us a little bit of time because as we make operational changes, it's impacting how our collections are going.

But last week, we were able to get everything off the street by Saturday. So we had no week-on-week delay. But as we move through this crisis, we anticipate that there could be delays in collection. We just want to make sure that folks understand that but that they put out the material. We are coming. And we will get it up.

GREENE: Can I ask you about some of your workers? There are reports that more than a hundred sanitation workers have now tested positive for the virus. And some of your workers are saying they don't have masks. They don't have gloves to wear to protect themselves as they're doing their job. What are you doing to make sure that these workers are safe?

GARCIA: So as we all know now, this is spread by person-to-person contact. So we have done a bunch of things to try and make it so that they are more protected. We have limited the time in the public. We moved many of our shifts to the overnight hours. We are starting our day shift at 5 a.m. In our normal course of operations, we move sanitation workers between different garages - just sort of our normal protocol. We stopped doing that to limit how many times they're interacting with other people.

And in terms of personal protective equipment, they wear gloves every day. Garbage inherently isn't clean even before we had viral spread. And we encouraged them to make sure that they are social distancing. And we also provided them with additional cleaning supplies. We are cleaning every truck and the garages every night to make sure that we are limiting the spread of this virus. So we are doing everything we can to keep them safe.

GREENE: I know your city has been hit so incredibly hard. The state of New York has now gone over this grim milestone of 1,000 deaths from this virus. Can you just tell me what it feels like to be in New York City at this moment?

GARCIA: So it's a very strange experience because it's not - there's nobody out. And so people are very hunkered down. So in a - in my regular world, this would be like a snow day, except on a snow day, it doesn't feel anxious. And so there's a lot of fear and anxiety. But what you also see is people, everyday New Yorkers, really stepping up to meet and support each other.

And then, of course, most importantly, what you've seen is health care workers on the front lines of this virus, more volunteers than I think anyone expected, who might be retired, stepping back into this role. So I feel like you see a lot of people coming together. And there's a sense that this is going to be really, really tough and really hard but that we will get through it. And we will be stronger when we come through this entire process.

GREENE: Kathryn Garcia is New York City's sanitation commissioner and also newly named food czar to take her city through this crisis. Thanks very much for your time.

GARCIA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.