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The small digital network making free food deliveries to vulnerable neighbors in New York

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As more and more of the world falls under coronavirus shutdown, many Americans are turning to the internet for daily needs: ordering groceries and household necessities through delivery services like FreshDirect, Amazon, Peapod and even restaurant wholesalers. But not everyone knows how to access those services — and even the people who do have not always been able to use them, as competing orders crowd delivery times and empty stockrooms.

Dense, frenetic New York City is by far the biggest epicenter of the US coronavirus outbreak, and cases are multiplying fast in the borough of Brooklyn, which with nearly 2.6 million people is bigger than most cities in the world. Here, people have long relied on their neighbors and churches for aid through hard times. They still do. But in the tree-lined neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, known as Bed-Stuy, where gentrification has rapidly widened the gap between rich and poor, a new form of neighborly help is taking root online.

For the past week, local residents have been using the workplace communications platform Slack to organize free food deliveries for neighbors who’ve lost their jobs as the coronavirus ravages the US economy, or are too physically vulnerable to walk into a grocery store. Pre-existing conditions like heart disease and diabetes are connected to higher risk of severe or fatal coronavirus infections.

Maureen Dantzler, 54, has diabetes and asthma, and has two sons at home with her. She told a neighbor last week that she was worried about the increasingly bare state of her cupboards, yet fearful to be exposed to the virus while shopping. Her neighbor said she knew of a way to get free food deliveries — and all Dantzler had to do was provide the shopping list.

By the end of the day, a young woman was knocking on her door holding bags of groceries — vegetables, meat, pasta, spaghetti sauce, everything she’d asked for. “I was truly shocked. I was so shocked,” says Dantzler. “I said, ‘Do I have to pay?’ because I was ready to, and she said it had already been paid for. So I just couldn’t stop saying thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Though Dantzler never downloaded Slack nor joined the community, her request had been listed on the #communityneeds channel of Slack group “BedStuyStrong.” There, anyone can ask for grocery delivery, and anyone with a little free time can volunteer to do the shopping and delivery. Others on the platform donate money to cover the cost.

‘It’s not about charity, it’s about solidarity’

From the street, it’s hard to tell which Bed-Stuy households are in need, behind the grand Victorian facades and stately stairways of the neighborhood’s iconic brownstones.

BedStuyStrong founder Sarah Mathews, 29, says she felt increasing concern for her elderly neighbors trapped indoors after watching news about the lockdowns in Italy. “I thought about the neighborhood as a whole and thought, this may be a time when we don’t get a lot of help from the government,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of holes in social safety nets and I just thought we need to organize online just in case there’s a lockdown, and we need to think geographically.”

To spread the word, Mathews, a fiction writer, posted simple paper flyers. In less than seven days, nearly 2,000 people in the neighborhood had joined the online community. “What I wanted to do was build a neighborhood hub. I didn’t expect it to grow as fast as it did,” she says.

The group does more than coordinate grocery deliveries — a plethora of social channels have flowered, offering pictures of pets, connecting home kombucha brewers and bread bakers, and listing calls to make hospital masks, donate insulin, and read books to kids over the phone, among other things.

It’s essentially a local version of the internet, in the spirit of Craigslist — the kind of digital connectivity that lets you chat online about sourdough while walking over to your interlocutor’s house to leave some starter on the front steps. A recent map of the group’s members showed someone on nearly every block within the neighborhood’s limits. “It’s not about charity, it’s about solidarity,” says Mathews.

But when it comes to the #communityneeds channel, “there’s this underlying understanding that the effort in this channel is focused on folks who either are low-income or just lost their jobs,” says Callil Capuozzo, 28. Volunteers respond to all requests, operating on a good-faith basis that the people who ask for help do need it. Capuozzo, who during normal hours works from home as a designer for a cryptocurrency startup, has so far delivered custom grocery orders as well as bulk produce to recipients in housing projects, “millennial Brooklynites,” and a local church.

How it works

To ensure that the deliveries are accessible even to those who have never used Slack or can’t easily navigate the internet — like the elderly, people without smart phones or computers, and those who don’t speak English — BedStuyStrong has posted bi-lingual paper notices with a Google Voice number that people can call or text to request deliveries, as well as an email address. Organizing the deliveries and payments happens online, and dispatchers follow up by telephone to make sure help was received.

About 70 deliveries have been made so far, and thousands of dollars have already been donated to the group’s Venmo account, in order to fund more grocery purchases, says delivery organizer Derek Smith, a researcher for the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization. He has been working the phones, taking requests for help and coordinating drop-offs. “We have people who are software engineers, systems engineers, data scientists, who have been able to automate a lot of this,” he says.

Volunteers are instructed to drop off groceries without making contact or entering the home, and they’re told not to volunteer at all if they’ve “traveled out of the country in the last 14 days, have any Covid-19/cold/flu-like symptoms, or have come into contact with someone that’s tested positive.”

“I have my gloves, my sanitizer, my wipes,” says Jodine Dorcé, a 44-year-old delivery volunteer, whose work as an events producer has slowed somewhat as large gatherings are prohibited. She says she sits in the front seat of her car and lets recipients take their packages out of the trunk, to avoid contact.

But even at that distance, Dorcé describes the exchange as an emotional one. “Everyone I’ve delivered to has been an elder,” she says. “I’m trying not to get close to them but I do wish I could hug them and tell them, ‘I’ve got you.'”

“It’s been kind of therapeutic for me,” she adds.

Another delivery volunteer, 23-year-old Breanna Rodriguez, was recently laid off from her job as a cashier at H&M. Now she is bringing groceries to others, even as the group helps her. She recently asked her neighbors on Slack for assistance paying her cable bill — a necessity now that her 7-year-old son is stuck at in the apartment all day — and was able to raise about a hundred dollars.

A growing effort

The entire BedStuyStrong project is less than two weeks old, and the rules of New York City’s lockdown seem to grow more stringent by the day. But requests are already coming in for assistance from distant addresses across the city and in other boroughs. And other neighborhoods are now emulating the group, starting up their own local aid and exchange messaging boards.

Keeping aid efforts local to each neighborhood will be key to success as the community grows, says Mathews, the group’s founder. And doing good does seem easier and more efficient when it’s in your neighborhood: Mia Kim, 36, now works from home as a copywriter at an e-commerce website. When she saw a request for groceries for a family with two diabetic parents who had recently lost their jobs, she asked her boss for a two-hour break. In that time, she was able to dash out, buy the groceries, get reimbursed online and make the delivery.

All this is hardly a competitor for vital established services like Meals on Wheels, food banks and mobile pantries — Dantzler, for example, says that she will still ask her local church for help in the future. And it’s hard to see how it would help in neighborhoods without a healthy population of hyper-connected and financially stable neighbors.

But as more and more Americans find themselves confined to home, with only the healthy liberated for essential errands like grocery shopping, why shouldn’t the notion of what’s “essential” extend beyond personal wellbeing to that of the entire block?

Just as critical to any kind of social assistance is getting the word out about it. And that’s something that even the isolated can do with minimal social contact. To pay forward the help that she received, Dantzler says she posted a sign in her apartment building, listing the group and several other websites where her neighbors can ask for help with groceries.

“A lot of people never say anything. They don’t talk to other people or ask for help,” she says. “But you know that saying, ‘A closed mouth doesn’t get fed?’ Well this is a time when that’s true,” she says.

Article Topic Follows: US & World

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