UPPER WEST SIDE — The basement of the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, a Methodist church on West 86th Street, was bustling with shoppers filling their carts with bags of rice, cans of pureed pumpkin, pasta and loaves of bread Monday morning.
As the month goes on, it will only get more crowded as thousands of needy families pick up groceries — all of which are free — in preparation for Thanksgiving.
This November is expected to be the busiest month ever for the West Side Campaign Against Hunger, a food pantry and advocacy organization that rents out the church's basement to provide meals to New Yorkers in need, executive director Stewart Desmond said.
In holiday tradition, the group wants to make sure its shelves are stocked with Thanksgiving favorites, specifically turkeys, which is why it is trying to gather 1,000 birds by the end of the month.
The heightened demand is the result of the holiday approaching amid cuts to the federal food stamps program, he explained.
"Nineteen percent more people came this October than October of last year," Desmond said.
And fear over the looming slashes to the program, part of what drove the October uptick, will only get worse as the cuts takes effect, said Maritza Quiroz, the organization's food director.
Quiroz oversees the 1.3 million pounds of food the campaign gives out each year through its supermarket-style pantry, where Desmond said 250 to 300 shoppers visit each day to shop for free food.
Families are allowed to visit once a month, and many will wait until the end of November, just before Thanksgiving, she said.
By then, the organization will have made room for hundreds of turkeys in its storage area. It hopes to reach its goal of 1,000 as part of the recently announced Thousand Turkey Challenge.
There is no income requirement for visitors to shop, and the majority of them have jobs. Many come from northern Manhattan via the 1 train and are children of immigrants, Desmond said.
"[Celebrating] Thanksgiving is a step towards Americanization. We like to be able to support this process," he said of the "cross-cultural, cross-religion" holiday.
"We've had families ask how to make turkeys," Quiroz added.
Baked hams and whole chickens are stockpiled, as well, so that "everyone will get something for a family meal," Desmond said.
The pantry is open four days a week and provides only "wholesome" food that's low in sugar and sodium, and not overly processed, he noted.
The challenge officially kicks off Tuesday, Nov. 19, but the campaign is accepting frozen turkeys and donations anytime. The group is looking for small turkeys that are about 14 pounds, or an $18 donation to go toward buying a turkey for a needy family.
In the three days before Thanksgiving, "we'll see close to one thousand families" visit, Desmond said.
Each week, the organization spends $11,500 buying food, Quiroz said, noting "it's never enough." Regardless, the organization's board recently voted to increase the amount it spends on food by a third, Desmond added.
Funding comes from the state's Department of Health, the City Council, the Robin Hood Foundation and donations from individuals, he said.
The turkey challenge is also a way for Upper West Siders to come into the pantry and see what the long lines they frequently walk by on West 86th Street are all about, Desmond said.
"It's not this dark, dingy place," he said. "We offer [people] great food, not leftovers."
Frozen turkeys can be dropped off on Monday, Nov. 25, and Tuesday, Nov. 26, from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., and on Wednesday, Nov. 27, from 9 a.m. to noon. Donations can be made online or by check. For more information about the Thousand Turkey Challenge, email firstname.lastname@example.org.