BRONX — Inside the Huntington Free Library and Reading Room, a fixture in Westchester Square since the 1890s, tables and bookshelves holding historical novels have been pushed aside to make room for towering boxes of food. 

Bags of carrots and boxes of almond milk have replaced printers and paperweights, transforming the privately endowed library from a functioning reading and research center into a bustling food-distribution hub and pantry.

Joined by the Loving the Bronx community group, the library has created partnerships with organizations that provide volunteers with fresh produce and healthy foods that they in turn distribute to the community. Volunteers work with major wholesale distributors to get food donated and delivered to the library.

The library is also an intermediary for neighborhood groups to get supplies for community food pantries. 

“It’s purely grassroots, where we team up with smaller entities rather than depending on the larger ones,” said library president Angel Hernandez. 

As many Bronxites struggle with chronic food insecurity compounded by the pandemic, the transformation of the library shows how people and institutions from different backgrounds and beliefs are stepping up to serve their communities.

“We realize that under this climate there is a lot of division. I’ve lived here my entire life so I look at it and know it shouldn’t be this way,” said Nilka Martell, founder of Loving the Bronx. “When it comes to food scarcity, people are hungry. You don’t deny people food.”

The Huntington Free Library and Reading Room, a fixture in the Bronx for generations, now connects community food suppliers with donations.

A Pull Toward Sharing

Martell, a member of the library’s board, oversaw the efforts to convert it into a food hub starting in March. Volunteers have distributed 610 boxes of produce and 1,500 prepared meals in the past two weeks alone.

She said one of the most rewarding aspects has been working with other community organizations and seeing religious groups of different faiths participate. 

“It became this whole network of food resources and sharing of these resources. Everything has really been beautiful. I’m exhausted, but it has been beautiful,” Martell said. “I was born and raised here in the Bronx and everybody always looks at the Bronx with this negative lens. Why aren’t these stories being captured of how regardless of what you believe, what you look like, the color of your skin, there was a need for food and people really met it?”

Martell said distributions from the library and to homes will continue through the remainder of the year every Tuesday and Thursday. Loving the Bronx is also raising money for a community fridge—with $8,000 collected in less than 10 days—and will distribute 200 turkeys on Nov. 21.

Volunteers will continue delivering food to those who can’t leave their homes on a weekly basis. 

The library’s wooden floors are a deep chestnut brown. Artwork chronicling the building’s and neighborhood’s transformation throughout the years lines the walls. A massive oil painting of railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington, the library’s founder, crowns a brick fireplace. Sunlight streams through the windows, washing the main room in warm afternoon light. 

“It’s a beautiful space, it’s a big space,” Martell said. “When we thought about doing this originally, the biggest fear was social distancing. But we set up tables in a way that even if people are sitting they aren’t too close to one another.”

Volunteers wear gloves, use hand sanitizer and aim to maintain a safe distance.

Nilka Martell and Loving the Bronx volunteers prepare for a day of food distribution.

How large and small groups connect

Rap4Bronx and GrowNYC, two of the biggest organizations that have joined the project, provide fresh produce to New Yorkers. They fulfill a vital need, Martell noted many people who receive food services from the city often don’t get many fruits and vegetables. 

“We don’t want to just give people something that they can consume. We want to nourish their bodies,” said Rap4Bronx coordinator Shana McCormick. “They should not be exempt from that and that is why we are so grateful for what we get. We aren’t just pushing meals on people. It’s quality, it’s nutritious and that’s super important.”

Rap4Bronx, which stands for Relief Access Program for the Bronx, was born amid the pandemic.

McCormick described food insecurity as a “pre-existing condition” in the Bronx, where affordable grocery stores can be scarce and healthy foods unavailable. “Alarming unemployment” brought about by COVID-19 — 25% in the Bronx — has only made things worse.

McCormick said its volunteers, who all have construction backgrounds, partner with food suppliers such as City Harvest and Imperfect Foods that collect donations and register with the New York Food Bank to make its operations sustainable.

McCormick said Rap4Bronx has distributed 750,000 meals to a variety of distribution centers, including the library. The group provides more than 10,000 prepared meals each week in addition to fresh produce. The organization, whose operations are sustainable as of now thanks to grants and donated food, is looking for more volunteers and hoping to expand its efforts.

GrowNYC, the 50-year-old environmental organization, has relationships with growers, farmers and producers that give it a direct channel to distribute produce, said Justin McAmmond, its community outreach coordinator. 

GrowNYC has worked with about 30 community groups as part of its citywide food-box program. “It’s really the expertise and the experience of people like [Martell] and other organizations based in the community that have allowed us to play this role,” he said. “We distribute these food boxes. But these organizations on the ground do the heavy lifting, get the volunteers and do all the distribution.”

These sort of undertakings are nothing new in the Bronx, community leaders say. 

“Whenever we come across or come up to any type of social discourse or any emergencies like this, Bronxites, we step up. We step up at a time of need,” Hernandez said. “My urge is to step up and help out no matter what. Just as we’ve done since 1892, we will continue to service the Bronx.”