YORKTOWN, N.Y. – The non-profit organization, Feeding Westchester, along with a team of local volunteers, is providing hunger relief directly in the Yorktown area with its mobile food pantry at the Jefferson Valley Mall.

For the previous two years, trucks loaded with food and produce had been available once per month at George Washington Elementary School, according to Beth Luft, a school social worker in the Lakeland School District, who has been an active volunteer with the program.

“When COVID happened, where we usually had about 85 people coming, we then had over 200 people and we were like, what are we going to do?” Luft said. As the need outgrew the space at the elementary school, the operation was moved to the Jefferson Valley Mall, where it currently serves anybody from Westchester who is seeking assistance.

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Over the summer, the pre-boxed items were distributed on a weekly basis when, at one point, Luft said, 507 families came for help.

“With the volunteers, who include social workers, teachers, high school students and others, we were averaging 10,000-12,000 pounds of food being given out a week,” she said.

Feeding Westchester, which sources and distributes food to towns across the county and has a network of over 300 partners (including food pantries, soup kitchens and others), has characterized this recent period as “unprecedented.” In moving the mobile pantry to the larger site at the mall, they were able to find adequate space to feed many more people, while adhering to public health regulations.

“Feeding Westchester is seeing a demand for food like never before,” said President & CEO Karen Erren. “Our agency partners and direct distributions have been serving more than 300,000 people per month on average—that is more than double than before the pandemic—and from March through August, more than 13 million pounds of food or 11 million meals were distributed throughout the county.”

The JV Mall parking lot has served multiple purposes since the pandemic began: as a venue for graduation ceremonies, fitness classes, drive-in movie nights—and when the request came for a food distribution site, they accommodated the community’s need to use their space—allowing families to obtain food in a contactless way.

“The mall is a large wide-open space, reaching a high volume of clients, and has the capability to socially distance clients in a safe manner, with low traffic volume to make it safer for walking clients,” Erren added.

Another volunteer, Mary Ellen Herzog, who is a retired assistant superintendent for pupil personnel services in the Lakeland School District, had overseen a “backpack program” some years ago for local students who experienced food insecurity. Those families could receive a bag of non-perishable items twice a month, which ultimately transitioned to full, mobile food pantry option beginning in October 2018 that serves both district families and senior citizens as well.

“It all shut down in March 2020 and we were required to pre-box and deliver the items to the cars,” she said.

Herzog saw an ever-increasing number of people seeking food assistance as a result of the pandemic and was relieved to see the operation move to the Jefferson Valley Mall in April, where it will continue for the foreseeable future.

“The Yorktown police have been very helpful—we were doing it twice a month through June,” she said. “It has been so humbling to see the number of folks who became food-insecure following the loss of employment.”

Many in Westchester are reaching out for the first time in order to keep food on the table, the president of Feeding Westchester explained, and made a plea to residents who might be able to help out.

“As the county continues to rebuild and adjust to the new norm, the need for food remains at an all-time high,” Erren said. “We rely on the support of our community members to source and distribute good, nutritious food to those in need, and anyone can help by donating, hosting a food drive or a fundraiser.”