Skip to main content

A People-Powered Approach to Feeding New Yorkers Gets Street Vendors Back to Work

The Street Vendor Project put New York City street vendors back to work preparing thousands of free meals for communities in Brooklyn and the Bronx facing food insecurity.

“Right now, we’re really struggling to even just make ends meet,” says Mahmoud Ebrahim of the situation New York City street food vendors like him have faced since the pandemic hit. At the same time, a sharp and sustained increase in food insecurity has affected communities in neighborhoods across the city.

The Urban Justice Center’s Street Vendor Project the saw these developments unfolding on both sides of the food cart window and went into action. With support from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), the Street Vendor Project got local street vendors to work preparing more than a thousand delicious, culturally appropriate meals a week to be distributed free in their communities in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

“They are the smallest businesses in New York City,” said Street Vendor Project Deputy Director Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez. “Without street vendors, New York wouldn’t be New York.”

SNF’s grant to the Street Vendor Project was part of the Foundation’s $100 million global COVID-19 relief initiative, whose most immediate goal was to provide speedy aid to meet essential needs, like access to food, in hard-hit areas. A simultaneous, longer-term focus is contributing to relief and recovery from the socioeconomic crisis riding the coattails of the pandemic.

In bringing together the two halves of the equation—increased food need on the one side and the need to get small business owners back to work on the other—the Street Vendor Project’s meal distribution model matches a core strategic goal for SNF. The Foundation seeks to make grants that harness a “multiplier effect,” producing benefits as broadly shared as possible, in this case providing the means for members of community to lend one another a hand.

It’s a formula so effective that it seems obvious when you see it in action, and perhaps it’s for this reason that the meal distributions have drawn New York media coverage.

“Getting through this pandemic isn’t going to be done on an individual basis. It’s going to be done by neighbors helping neighbors and communities helping communities,” said SNF Program Officer Alex Simon-Fox. “I can’t think of a group that’s more community-based and people-powered than the Street Vendor Project.”