A volunteer with the Albanian American Open Hand Association stands ready to distribute food from Pelham Parkway. (Photos/Kris Parker)

BRONX — Before COVID-19 hit, the Albanian American Open Hand Association had served hundreds of people through weekly food-pantry offerings.

Eight months into the pandemic, the group—based in the Pelham Parkway section—is providing food at double and sometimes triple those amounts.

“Before, we never had more than 300 people here at our location, now we’ve gone up to at least 700 people, sometimes more,” said  Aleksander Nilaj, the founder and president.

The 48-year-old immigrant from Albania runs the organization out of a converted apartment on the bottom floor of the building where he lives as superintendent. Nilaj, who came  to the United States in 2006, started the organization in 2012. He has been operating a food pantry with the help of a team of volunteers ever since.  

No matter how dangerous it is outside or how dangerous it feels, you cannot stay inside while your neighbor is hungry,” said Aleksander Nilaj of the Albanian American Open Hand Association.

“It’s not easy dealing with 700, up to 1,000 people every Saturday. We don’t know if somebody can be sick, and we can get it at any time,” Nilaj said. “It’s tough, it’s a tough time, but we cannot stop. No matter how dangerous it is outside or how dangerous it feels, you cannot stay inside while your neighbor is hungry. You’re scared. But if that person is dying from not having food, you’ll take the opportunity to go give them food.” 

Food insecurity is a persistent problem in the Bronx, where even before the pandemic, nearly one out of four residents reported not being able to afford enough to eat. 

Massive spikes in unemployment have only made things worse in one of the most food-insecure counties in the nation. The jobless rate in New York City is almost twice the national average, with parts of the Bronx at almost 30%

For the past six months, the association has been giving away food from 5:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. every day, backed by about 30 volunteers, many of whom are Albanian immigrants. The group receives more than 2,000 boxes of food to distribute each week and on Saturdays they give away about 1,200 meals.

Nilaj and the volunteers also deliver food to other pantries, churches, and homeless shelters throughout the Bronx and the region. The donated food typically consists of fresh produce, dairy products and non-perishables. Meals, provided through the city,  often include kosher and halal items.

Building a Network

Across the city, demand has been so great that some pantries do not always have enough for everyone in line. Shay Cooper of the NYC Get Food Program, who often delivers to the Albanian association, says has seen pantries run out of food twice in the last six months. 

“A lot of pantries, they open up what they’re doing to feed everybody, but a lot of them don’t have a lot of food,” he said. “It’s kind of sad…hundreds and hundreds of people lining up. And then you only have a certain amount of meals.” 

Despite the increase in people seeking assistance, the Albanian association says its network of support has allowed it to serve all who seek help. Local businesses, families and Councilman Mark Gjonaj (D-Bronx) also help direct food donations to the group.

Recipients and community leaders appreciate what Nilaj and his team has been doing.

“They serve the community—the whole community, not only the Albanians. They help Black people, Hispanic people, everyone,” said an elderly Bronx resident who would only identify herself as Ms. Rice. “I am lucky, I’m able to come out and get my food even though I have arthritis and asthma. You know, I don’t come when the line is long. But this here, this lasts me almost all week, without having to go to the store or having to buy anything. And I’m so appreciative.”

Edith Blitzer, head of the Pelham Parkway Neighborhood Association, said, “People need food, they need money for rent, they need money for drugs, they need all of it.

“Without them a substantial amount of people in this community wouldn’t be eating.”