Columbia University Medical Center

The Youth Behind CUMC’s Holiday Food Drive

Youth volunteers from Fresh Youth Initiatives run a food drive every year at CUMC

The young volunteers from Fresh Youth Initiatives food pantry – the only youth-run food pantry in New York City – work with CUMC and other organizations to deliver food to low-income families in Washington Heights and Inwood. Photo: Fresh Youth Initiatives.

For over a decade, CUMC’s partnership with a local food pantry – run entirely by teenagers from Washington Heights and Inwood – has been feeding thousands of families during the holiday season.

When Fresh Youth Initiatives started in 1993 to provide a place for children in Washington Heights to get involved in community service, hunger relief wasn’t on the agenda. Young volunteers spent most of their time cleaning up neighborhood parks, removing graffiti, or making warm sleeping bags for the homeless.

But the organization has always seen its young volunteers as community leaders with their own ideas, so in the mid-1990s when one of the organization’s teenage volunteers wanted to help people who were in need of food, FYI’s adult staff helped the teenagers open a food pantry.

“It’s still the only youth-run food pantry in New York City,” says Jeremiah Roman, program director at FYI. “The kids come up with the ideas, they do all the work, and we help with the logistics.”

As the pantry got rolling, the kids started reaching out to other organizations to help with their annual holiday season food drive. “We put together a video about the pantry and went round to different organizations, and that’s how CUMC got involved,” Roman says. Since then, FYI’s youth-run food pantry has partnered with several other schools and organizations to boost donations.

Columbia's contributions are tremendousThe pantry has now served over 5,000 low-income families in Washington Heights and Inwood and distributes about 80,000 pounds of food each year.

Shanel Reyes, 17, has been volunteering at FYI for 9 years. “Since I was little, I’ve been working in the food pantry. It’s my favorite thing to do at FYI,” she says. “Throughout the year, we collect food, we stock the shelves, we pack the shopping bags, and we deliver groceries to the homes of elderly people. “It’s a good feeling when you know you’re helping other people.”

During November, donations from CUMC employees are crucial for the pantry’s holiday season.

“Columbia’s contributions are tremendous,” says Maria Herrera, FYI’s director of communications. “We really count on that support during this time of the year when the need is greater, especially since some of our other funding sources dry up during the holidays.”

In conjunction with the food drive at CUMC, FYI’s volunteers will be stationed outside neighborhood grocery stores this Saturday asking shoppers for soup, gravy and other canned items to aid the effort.

food drive locationsAt 11, Arkiany Santana, is already a veteran of the pantry’s holiday food drives. “I don’t have any special tricks for getting donations, if people want to donate, that’s great,” she says. “What I like best is when we work as a community to help other people.”

Canned cranberry sauce, fruit, beans and tuna fish are especially appreciated, along with canned meals such as ravioli or soup.

“We’ve been working with Fresh Youth Initiatives for over a decade now, and it’s really inspiring to see the youth play such a meaningful role in their community,” says Sandra Harris, assistant vice president for government and community affairs at CUMC. “Their efforts provide much needed food for our most vulnerable neighbors, and we’re glad the CUMC community has jumped in to help out.”