HARLEM — The organization that manages the Puerto Rican Day Parade has turned over a new leaf in the months since a state probe found a consultant bilked it out of $1 million in donations, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said.
Standing outside St. Cecilia's food pantry on East 105th Street as volunteers unloaded 2,500 pounds of food donated by parade sponsor Goya Foods, Mark-Viverito, one of the grand marshals for the June 8 event on Fifth Avenue, said it was the type of work that the parade could have been doing if it had been being managed properly.
"One of the criticisms that some of us have had for quite a few years is that the organization had been taken over by a corporate slant," she said. "It was more about taking the donations from the corporation, highlighting the corporations and it was losing touch with the grassroots aspects and needs of our community."
In January, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman found that Carlos Velasquez, president of the board's longtime marketing agent Galos Corporation, allegedly misappropriated $1.4 million in funds from the board between 2008 to 2012.
The investigation was launched last year after a controversial ad featuring a Puerto Rican flag wrapped around a Coors beer cans revealed a sponsorship arrangement and purported scholarship fund by MillerCoors that community activists said they saw no proof of.
As a result of the investigation, Schneiderman removed half the board's members, including its chairwoman Madelyn Lugo. A new board was installed and Velasquez was ordered to repay $100,000 in cash and wipe out a bogus $1 million debt.
Some were worried the parade would not take place this year.
The new board is more involved and focused on making sure the community sees the benefits of the parade, Mark-Viverito said.
The theme of this year's parade is "Un Pueblo, Muchas Voces" or "One Nation, Many Voices." The centennial of the birth of Puerto Rican poet and journalist Julia de Burgos will be featured and the amount of scholarships given out has increased to $30,000 from $10,000.
"The tone that's being set is very different than we've had in the past. You have a board that's more engaged. Before, the board was completely disengaged. They were leaving it to a company that they didn't know what it was doing half the time," Mark-Viverito said.
Goya donated 5,000 pounds of healthy brown rice, sugar-free juices, and cans of both low sodium mixed vegetables and beans through Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York's "Feeding Our Neighbors" campaign.
Little Sisters of the Assumption Family Health Center on East 115th Street will receive the other 2,500 pounds of food.
Rafael Toro, director of public relations for Goya Foods, said the donation constitutes 4,000 meals.
"We feel that the parade is for the community," he said.
With the November 2013 cuts to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the "food stamp" program, not having enough food is more of an issue than ever in East Harlem where 31 percent of people and 45 percent of children — about 37,250 residents — live in poverty.
Visits to Little Sisters of the Assumption food pantry have jumped 15 percent since the cuts to the food stamp program, contributing to a 46-percent increase in usage between 2009 and 2013.
Talia Lockspeiser, associate director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, said the neighborhood's growing immigrant population is often living on limited incomes and rely on the weekly food donations to sustain their families.
Lines form hours beforehand on the days the food is distributed.
"This will mean that hundreds of families will not go to bed hungry at night," said Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York.