A month before the NYC Rescue Mission's annual Thanksgiving banquet, executive director Mayes put his foot down: Only 200 volunteers.
"If we have too many volunteers for this, it ends up being not the greatest thing," Mayes said.
He cut volunteers for Monday's banquet by some 20 percent, feeling "like there were too many people just standing around" last year.
Mayes acknowledges many New Yorkers see this as the best time to "give back." But as soup kitchens and food pantries receive an influx of donations, cash and volunteers around the holidays, many grateful organizers like Mayes dream of year-round generosity.
"This is our big time," Mayes said. "But hunger doesn't know a season."
About 2.6 million New Yorkers have difficulty feeding themselves or their family, according to the Food Bank For New York City.
Roughly 1.4 million rely on soup kitchens and food pantries, such as the Rescue Mission in lower Manhattan or Masbia in Brooklyn and Queens.
This Thursday, Masbia executive director Alexander Rapaport expects roughly 200 volunteers at the Borough Park soup kitchen, in addition to another 200 the day before.
"In reality we don't want to have this peak," Rapaport said. "It's an extra strain, an extra burden on us."
On Thanksgiving, most volunteers will cut vegetables, almost all of which will be frozen and served in the weeks after the holiday. One year, Masbia even spent extra cash to buy more vegetables so that the massive group of Thanksgiving volunteers would have something to do.
Rapaport said the organization tries not to turn down volunteers because he sees the experience as an important step in understanding hunger and poverty.
"Theres an awareness level to it but that doesn't mean the charity ends up with a net gain from them volunteering," he said.
The Bowery Mission will have roughly 600 volunteers on Thanksgiving and feed some 7,000 people. Matt Krivich, the mission's director of operations, said he tries to remind holiday regulars, as they're serving meals or dropping off food and clothing donations, that the need is year-round.
"There's a couple folks I always see during the holidays and I tell them we're always open," Krivich said. "What we do here is a large task, but we're not able to do it on our own."
This month, soup kitchens and pantries have been put under more pressure after federal cuts to the SNAP program, explained Margarette Purvis, the head of the Food Bank For New York City, which distributes food to over 1,000 organizations in the five boroughs.
Monetary contributions spike around this time — ahead of the Dec. 31 deadline for tax deductions — normally sustaining organizations through March, Purvis said. But the federal SNAP cuts mean longer lines, and many soup kitchens are concerned.
"We don't really know what to expect this year because the need has gone up," Purvis said.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Monday that the state awarded over $2 billion in grants to 25 organizations around the city, including the Food Bank, to alleviate the cuts.
In his announcement, Cuomo encouraged New Yorkers to donate at a local food bank during the holidays.
But Mayes and other organizers asked that people remember hungry New Yorkers in a couple of months, too.
"We're in the season of generosity right now," he said. "But January and February are really tough."
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