The Making of a NY Times Feature Story on Food Pantries During COVID

NYT article
The pandemic took a toll on too many people's lives, but did so in way greater numbers on people's livelihoods, leaving many jobless and stranded for food.  The NY Times wanted to find a way to document it as it happened. The scope of the story went through many reformations. The resulting article was a three full page cover story in their Food section. At the time they first started working on this article, NYC was at the height of its COVID infections rate and was on lockdown. Travel was heavily discouraged unless absolutely necessary to the point where the streets were practically empty. Even newsrooms kept their staff close to home - literally. Stories were assigned to reporters based on their proximity and going indoors to gather information for stories was heavily discouraged.

Throughout the pandemic, Masbia operated outdoors and served hundreds of families every day at multiple locations. Masbia of Flatbush ended up being visited by the reporters many, many times. There were days from still-cold, coat-wearing days of April, to the hot days of July. From days where Masbia had lines snaking around the corner five hundred families deep, to days when Masbia transitioned into a digital appointment system by staggering appointments for 24 hours five days a week, straight.

They settled on featuring four families, two of the clients who went to the Masbia food pantry. Finding the families who were willing to talk and whose scenario tell their COVID story best meant interviewing dozens of people on our breadline and waiting for them to book another appointment. Once the appointment was booked they would shadow the family as they left their home to go to Masbia, wait on line, get their raw pantry package, go home, and prepare a meal from the food they'd just received.

Masbia also helped the NY Times by texting all clients to e-mail a photo of meals they prepared using items they picked up from Masbia directly to the reporter and about eight of those photos made it into the story. That is in addition to the four people who were the main focus of the story. 

The largest photo in the printed edition spread shows a line of socially distant adults on Avenue K at East 10th Street. Photographer Todd Heisler grappled to find the perfect shot to describe how long the lines were. His hardships came with the fact that not only was this line L-shaped and snaking thousands of feet away from our facility, but many views of the line were obstructed by various things such as parked cars and trucks, trees, awnings, and the like. The chosen shot was one that shows the end of the line of people crossing the street in what looks like a middle-class residential area. To get a sense of how far away from the Flatbush facility the picture was taken, see the map below with the line of people depicted in green. Below, you will also see him getting a rooftop shot. That same day, Councilman Brad Lander came to help out and you can see him at a computer serving a client.

This photo is the one the NY Times chose to have as the main teaser photo when they posted this article online and on social media. It features a dedicated, long-time volunteer of more than a decade named Lois Halber.  You can also see a sign with instructions for making an appointment. During the peak of the pandemic, we were trying to fix the train while it was running, so to speak, and needed to come up with solutions to deal with the 500% increase in demand. There was no time to wait for fancy graphics and printed signs.  Here, you can see Executive Director, Alexander Rapaport drawing those signs.
Reporter Nikita Stewart tried to minimize showing up at the scene and did a lot of the work remotely and relied heavily on intel provided by photographer Todd Heisler. When she did show up, she did so wearing a very serious face mask.

NY Times digital reporter Elaine Chen also contributed to this article and you can see standing next to ED Alexander Rapaport outside of Masbia of Queens.

Also in the online article, way at the bottom and accessed after clicking to "read more", is mention of our recent expansion of operating hours, so that we are now open 24 hours. It didn't get much play in this article since this article was reported on from May - July and this only started a few days before the article was published. It did, however, make it onto three TV news stations. Click here to view: NY1, News12 and Fox 5.
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  • Laura Allen
    published this page in Blog 2020-12-03 17:12:00 -0500