Come Together: Hungerthon Spotlight Urban Outreach Center of NYC

This year marks WhyHunger’s 38th Hungerthon! To kick off our campaign, we want to spotlight some of our amazing grassroots partners, who are working hard to end hunger in New York City and advocate for all New Yorkers’ human right to nutritious food. Read on to learn more from our next Hungerthon Partner Spotlight: Urban Outreach Center.

Myth: Hunger in the U.S. will end once we donate enough food.
Truth: People will experience hunger until we change the systems that keep them hungry.

The Urban Outreach Center’s (UOC) mission is to end the hunger gap between East Harlem and the Upper East Side, with dignity and hospitality. They are a food pantry that centers their guests’ right to choice, connecting New Yorkers with the healthy food and wrap-around social services they need.

UOC is passionate about helping low-income New Yorkers access the necessities and connections for them to thrive. They are fighting to see more justice in their communities’ food systems, ending the hunger gap between East Harlem and the Upper East Side. UOC’s Director of Programs and Advocacy, Shaun Kennedy, explains that the life expectancy in East Harlem is on average ten years lower than in the Upper East Side More widespread/higher rates of food insecurity is one of the factors driving the lower life expectancy in East Harlem - and it’s connected to other systemic issues that also need to be addressed.

“It’s easy to think that hunger is separate from everything else… and that’s just not true. Folks that are struggling to put food on the table are most often struggling to pay rent, to find ways to get here, to deal with child care,” Shaun told WhyHunger.

At UOC, the staff and volunteers work hard to provide healthy food options to their neighbors, and warm, home-cooked meals. But to truly end the hunger gap in their community, they know they must do more than provide emergency food.

“There’s a public health model,” said Shaun, “where someone is standing by a river, and they see someone flailing, drowning. And they go to pull that person out. And then it happens again, 10 minutes later, and again, 10 minutes later. Giving people food is like continuing to pull people out at that place. When really, to change the system to a point where people don’t need food would require walking upstream, to figure out why all these people are falling in… And what do we do about it?”

Systemic and policy level changes are crucial to ending hunger. As the costs of living and housing rise, 1 in 4 New Yorkers are experiencing food insecurity. Executive Director of UOC, Jordan Tarwater explains that this means 1 in 4 of our neighbors don’t know if they’re going to have enough food to get to the end of the week. And to change this reality, organizations like UOC are also focused on advocacy work and promoting policy change as a crucial part of ending hunger in the long-term. They partner with other organizations and student groups to strengthen their advocacy work and build connections.

UOC has a particular interest in working with youth and engaging them in conversations and learning about hunger and how to address systemic issues. Young people have an important perspective, UOC believes, and it can be very sobering and motivating for older generations to see young people advocating for rights and changes. In Josephine Wilson’s words, UOC’s Assistant Director for Guest Services for over 10 years, “The youth will carry on this torch once some of us leave.” UOC welcomes young volunteers to come to their center, to learn about hunger in NYC, and to learn and experience that every human being in need of emergency food deserves dignity, respect, and choice.

Myth: When people are hungry, they should just accept whatever is available
Truth: People experiencing hunger deserve choice and dignity when it comes to food

Urban Outreach Center welcomes all guests and volunteers to their center with a warm, relational, and person-forward attitude. They center dignity and choice for their guests. Shaun explained, “Guests deserve to be treated well, and with respect. And to be given as much choice and autonomy from us as possible,” says Shaun. UOC prioritizes market-models for their food distribution, so guests can browse and choose the food they want. They work with guests to address accessibility and dietary needs, and they work with volunteers to create a communal space that offers hospitality. They encourage volunteers to meet and talk to the guests coming to the center, to learn and remember their names. At the end of the day, their hope is that UOC is a place that guests look forward to coming to.

When WhyHunger interviewed UOC staff and volunteers, the affection they have for this space and community was palpable. The people coming to them aren’t guests - they are family. They are friends. They are neighbors. Long-time volunteer with NY Cares, Geneva Camacho, explained, “What’s unique about UOC is that it’s like a little family.”

UOC is welcoming guests and volunteers to their center and inviting everyone to participate in changing the narrative around who is hungry, why they’re hungry, and what they deserve. When we spoke to Executive Director, Jordan, he told WhyHunger that one of the students from a school group that volunteered at UOC then learned the names of every person experiencing homelessness on their block. Jordan went on to say, “And that’s really what we’re trying to do, if we can engage people in this way, in this relational person-forward way, I think we can change the whole system. And that’s huge.”

How can you support Urban Outreach Center–
Check out their website to learn more about their work, to make a donation, or to get involved in their advocacy work. If you are interested in participating in advocacy work, you can contact Shaun directly.

Another way to support is to volunteer! On their website, you can sign up to volunteer, or you can visit NY Cares for volunteer opportunities at UOC. The UOC team encourages everyone for whom hunger is an issue that touches their heart to get involved with their local food pantry. And if your local pantry happens to be UOC, they’d love to meet you there!

WhyHunger is proud to partner with Urban Outreach Center and is inspired by their work to both care for their local neighbors and engage in changing the broader systems that cause hunger. To learn more about WhyHunger’s Hungerthon visit