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Feeding a City
Sheri Jefferson and her team feed up to 1,000 people a day at Food Bank for New York City.
Thanksgiving is a time for gathering around the family table to savor a feast. But, while the Hallmark channel and cell phone commercials might have us all thinking that there’s an endless bounty waiting for us all, the reality is different.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 12.8 percent (17.0 million) of U.S. households were food insecure at some time during 2022, a number that was significantly higher than in 2021, when the number was 10.2 percent (13.5 million).
For many people, food banks and meal services are the difference between having a nutritious meal and going hungry.
Sheri Jefferson, head chef and culinary manager for Food Bank For New York City prepares up to 1,000 meals with her team to serve at its community kitchen in Harlem, New York.
Jefferson, a mother of two grown daughters, knows only too well what it takes to feed a family. “The struggle is real. I remember days when my girls were growing up, I would play a game called Who is eating tonight — is it all of us or just the two of them?”
That kind of empathy — mixed with respect and a passion for cooking — is what drives Jefferson and her team to create the best meals for the clients who arrive for a hot meal and a sense of community each day.
Broken Palate: Can you share who are the clients who come to Food Bank for New York City?
Sheri Jefferson: The Food Bank is for everyone. People come from all the boroughs. As far as class of people, there is no one class: it’s so diverse. The bottom line is it’s just people.
BP: Post-pandemic food prices have surged. Is this creating an uptick in the people who seek out the assistance of food banks like yours?
SJ: I went to the supermarket and spent $85 on just bread, eggs, milk, and juice. I even find myself struggling with the high costs. That’s what we’re here for. For that reason. Some families come — working-class people who have picked their kids up from school and stopped in for a meal. We have MTA drivers who come for a meal between routes.
BP: What would you say to those people — working people who might have jobs but at the end of the month have to decide between food and rent or food and medication? People might feel that they may be taking food away from less fortunate people.
SJ: Some people have to choose between paying rent and eating. If there’s a way to lessen the load, we want to help. I want people to come here and enjoy a meal and not worry if they can afford to have a roof over their heads. It may ease the pain.
BP: Where do you get your food? Is it from donations?
SJ: We have a warehouse in Hunts Point. We work with member agencies that are affiliated with other food pantries. For the kitchen, I rely on partnerships with different stores. I try to purchase very little.
BP: How do you create a meal that’s interesting and nutritious?
SJ: Basically, I live my own version of Chopped every day. Which is not bad at all. We’ve been blessed with different partnerships, like Hunts Point Market, so at least I know what fresh produce comes in. We try to balance meals with both canned and fresh food. I try to order certain proteins. There’s nothing wrong with chicken, but when you’re making 800 meals and someone blesses you with beef it’s like Christmas. It’s nice to give people a variety.
We may technically be a soup kitchen, but the goal is to be the best in class. We’re located right around the corner from Melba’s and I realize that many of my clients will never be able to eat at these great restaurants here, so I give them the best experience I can. One time, someone donated waffles, and I had chicken, so my staff and I fried chicken for 400 people and made chicken and waffles. It was a job, but I want these people to feel like we care about them.
BP: So it’s more than feeding people’s bodies. It’s feeding their souls.
SJ: This is a family atmosphere. We don’t know each other, but we can sit together and break bread. Dignity is a must. First and foremost. That’s how people are treated here. When the food is presented to them, it’s served with love. You can always tell when someone puts themselves in their food.
BP: You’ve been here for eight years, and you’re a classically trained chef who had a successful catering company. What motivates you to stay here?
SJ: I know what it is to smile and have nothing. I know what it is to struggle. And I see that in all of my clients. When I look at people’s faces, I know there is no place for me to be but here. This is my joy. There isn’t a dollar amount that you could give me to feel that joy that comes from having people enjoy a meal that you put your whole heart into.
BP: With the holidays coming up, a lot of people want to give back to their community. How can we help?
SJ: We always accept donations. Of course, we need the money, but a lot of us don’t have money. Your time and your service are valuable. Find a food bank. Find a kitchen somewhere and help out. Volunteers are vital. People don’t realize how important they are — even if it’s helping take a box off a truck — you’ve made a difference.
To donate money or volunteer at Food Bank of New York City, click here.