MOTT HAVEN — Conditions at an outdoor food pantry are so bad that needy men and women are forced to dig through boxes of rotting produce to find still edible vegetables, neighbors say.
They say the pantry, which serves 5,000 people per month next to the Iglesia de Dios Senda de Bendicion church at 148th Street and Brook Avenue in the Bronx, has become unsanitary and even inhumane. The lot is filled with the stink of decaying food, they compain.
The boxes full of produce share space with used items — this week there were strollers, toy cars, dressers, couches, old shoes, plywood with exposed nails and even a car. Some were covered with blue tarps, others exposed.
The space is a "mini-landfill," said Carmen Santiago, who lives across the street from the open-air lot. She began petitioning officials earlier this month to have the pantry cleaned up after she saw boxes of vegetables spilling out onto the sidewalk and the street outside the lot.
“The lack of humanity, respect and dignity, it's appalling,” Santiago wrote in an email to the manager of the local community board and the Sanitation Department. It's “treating the community like rats.”
Pantry operator Hector Castillo called Santiago’s complaints “false reports,” but he acknowledged that the pantry often receives more produce than can fit in the church’s basement refrigerators, forcing the staff to leave some boxes of vegetables piled in the open air lot.
“We can’t fit that downstairs,” Castillo said through a translator Monday, as boxes of lettuce and cucumbers that were delivered Friday rested outdoors on wooden pallets.
“So we leave it outside so people can pick it up.”
Castillo and a few volunteers tossed several boxes of rotten vegetables, including some mold-covered cucumbers and brown lettuce heads, into a garbage truck on Monday afternoon.
A little later, a few women picked through the remaining boxes. One woman loaded a box of lettuce onto her cart.
“Sometimes they bring fresh carrots, potatoes, lettuce,” said Ilarea Gregorio, 48, who grabbed two fresher-looking heads of lettuce Monday.
But other times, Gregorio said, “they see it’s expired, but they leave it out here.”
Several days a week, dozens of people line up outside the fenced lot hours before the gates are unlocked and small groups are allowed to enter and fill shopping bags or mini-grocery carts with produce, according to neighbors and a pantry volunteer.
Locals, including Santiago, emphasized that many community members rely on the free food provided by the pantry, but they said the way the produce is stored and distributed seems unsafe.
“This is a real health hazard,” said Miguel Rodriguez, 49, who lives next door to the church and volunteers regularly at the pantry.
“Someone is going to get sick here one day.”
Santiago, who is acting president of her building's tenant association, launched her campaign last week to pressure Castillo to clean up the lot.
About 7 p.m. on Friday, May 4, Santiago said she noticed mounds of produce boxes, some stacked seven-feet high, filling the sidewalk outside the lot and the church and spilling out onto the street.
When she returned after midnight, Santiago said, the piles remained, though many boxes were now overturned, apparently by people scrounging for food. Santiago took several photos and called both 311 and Castillo.
The following week she emailed various officials.
"Our community is poor," Santiago wrote to a Sanitation Department community liaison, "but we deserve healthy edible food, in a clean and sanitary setting."
The Sanitation Department issued the pantry two $100 fines last month — one for loose rubbish and the other for "failure to store receptacles," according to a department spokeswoman, who added that collectors pick up trash from the site three times a week.
The Department of Health and Community Board 1 did not immediately return requests for comment.
Both Castillo and Rev. Mario Olivero, the church pastor, said they store as much of the donated fresh food they receive as possible in the church refrigerators. The rest, they said, they either throw out immediately or leave outside for people to take.
They said some of the shipments contain already rotten produce, which they trash. They added that they regularly clear out the boxes and rinse part of the lot with water and disinfectant.
“We’re trying to do something for our community,” said Olivero. “We are going to continue to try to fight the hunger.”
The pantry receives some of its food from the Food Bank for New York. The Food Bank requires at least one person from each pantry that accepts its food to take a food safety training and be onsite when the pantry operates, according to a Food Bank spokeswoman Danielle Pagano McGunagle.
Castillo presented his card saying he'd been trained in food safety.
McGunagle added that sites are expected to store produce inside and remove any items that are "not fit for consumption."
She said the Food Bank had not received any past complaints about Castillo's pantry, but that the agency would inspect the site "within the next week."
"The Food Bank is committed to serving the community with quality and dignity," McGunagle added.