MOTT HAVEN — A church-run food pantry criticized for leaving a Bronx lot littered with rotten food and garbage has promised to clean up its act.
As DNAinfo.com New York reported, residents near Iglesia de Dios Senda de Bendicion at E. 148th Street and Brook Avenue in the Bronx complained that the food pantry left boxes of produce, some of it visibly rotten, in an open-air lot for hungry residents to pick through to find edible food.
Some said the lot often stank and that its trash spilled over onto the sidewalk and street.
Since last month's story, the pantry has temporarily suspended its operations, with at least one food supplier issuing the site a list of corrective actions it must take before it can receive new shipments.
Residents celebrated the news.
“We did it. We won this battle,” said Carmen Santiago, who lives across the street from the lot and led a campaign to improve pantry conditions.
Santiago said she hopes the pantry will soon reopen, but in “the legal way, the sanitary way, the respectful way and the environmentally clean way.”
Hector Castillo, the director of the food pantry, lashed out at some of the pantry’s critics, but also described steps he would take to reform the food program during an interview Thursday at the church, known in English as Path of Blessings.
Castillo called his critics “envious” and politically motivated and even said he was planning to sue at least one resident for defamation.
He also repeated a defense he gave DNAinfo.com New York last month, saying that much of the produce he received was already spoiled, and that the church did not have enough refrigerator space to store it all.
Still, he listed several actions the pantry planned to take in order to get in good standing with its suppliers so it can once again pass out free food.
He said that visitors would now line up to receive numbered tickets, which they will trade in for pre-packed bags which staff will ensure contains only fresh or nonperishable food.
He also noted that pest controls had been installed around the church and that workers would be painting the pantry basement and building new shelves to keep food off the ground.
“The community wants the food pantry to continue,” Castillo said through a translator. “But we are forced and obligated to stop it until we can take care of the issues.”
A spokeswoman for one of the pantry’s free food suppliers, City Harvest, said it inspected the site following DNAinfo.com New York's report, after which it ceased deliveries to the pantry and issued it a “work plan.”
The pantry has 60 days from when it received the plan to begin implementing the corrective measures, said the spokeswoman Cara Taback.
Taback also said that if the pantry ever received rotten produce, it was not delivered by City Harvest.
“We have very strict guidelines in place for food rescue to make sure that what is picked up meets our guidelines,” Taback said.
Now that conditions at the pantry have been addressed, some residents have turned their attention to the lot where the food was once distributed.
While the boxes of sometimes rotten fruit and vegetables have been removed, the lot is still packed with used items, some draped in plastic tarps — dishes, strollers, furniture, clothes, TVs, even a car.
Castillo said the church buys some of the goods from community members, while others are donated. The church then resells the items to people who can pay, or gives them away to those who cannot.
Some residents said they appreciated the service, while others said the pay-what-you-wish approach created some confusion. Others called the permanent flea market an eyesore that reflects poorly on the surrounding neighborhood.
“He’s like ‘Sanford and Son’ with that lot,” said Santiago, the local resident, referring to the 1970s sitcom about a junk collector.
“I’m getting the sense that part two of this battle is now the lot with all that junk.”