A Q&A with New York City’s go-to crisis manager

New York City Department of Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia
New York City Department of Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia
Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office
New York City Department of Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia

A Q&A with New York City’s go-to crisis manager

Kathryn Garcia talks about tackling food insecurity during the coronavirus, and her many other jobs.
March 25, 2020

New York City Department of Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia wears many hats. In addition to her job overseeing the largest sanitation department in the world, she has three other titles: vice chair of the New York City Housing Authority’s board, lead czar and, most recently, COVID-19 food czar. It seems that whenever New York City is in a crisis, Mayor Bill de Blasio turns to Garcia, a longtime government manager, to help with the response. He tapped her to head up the city’s response to lead poisoning amid the NYCHA lead paint scandal, and later appointed her interim chair of the housing authority after its former head resigned over the scandal.

City & State spoke with Garcia about what her latest job entails, whether New Yorkers should worry about a food shortage and the latest on alternate side parking. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does it mean to be New York City’s COVID-19 food czar?

So this is really a role about coordinating across a lot of different agencies and not-for-profits to ensure that our most vulnerable (residents) have the food that they had last month when it was Meals on Wheels. But also looking for those who might be COVID vulnerable. So say you’re 75, you’ve never participated in Meals for Wheels, or a senior center, but now you’re not supposed to go outside. So how do we make sure that that population is also getting food? And then obviously, two weeks ago, we were feeding a million children a day. So setting up the new centers for the children to do grab-and-go (meals). It’s a very coordinated role, and then it will expand because we know that the food insecure population, with sort of the economic cliff that we fell off of, is likely to expand.

To be clear, because of all the panic buying we see in New York City, this role isn’t meant to address potential food shortages in grocery stores?

The other piece of this is to absolutely pay attention to what is happening with our supply lines. There was a moment of panic buying, and the supply chain was unprepared for it. But we have seen continued food coming in. The truck numbers coming in from Hunts Point look like they’re up about 30%. There is some competition with other big-box retailers in the region for our distributors, but so far there is food coming into the city and it is available. One challenge I think at local grocery stores is that they’re not used to having to restock so quickly.

So people who are not food insecure don’t really have to worry about running out of food?

There is not a concern that the country will run out of food. But we are also thinking much more long term. What if there is more illness in the breadbasket of the United States? That will change the equation. But obviously, we don’t see large cases where a lot of our food comes from yet, but it’s something we’re clearing watching. So we’re definitely setting up sort of an emergency (plan) so we are prepared to pivot if we see a challenge in any of the supply chains.

You’re sort of the mayor’s go-to crisis manager. How have your current and past roles prepared you for your current task?

I’ll say this upfront, this is an unprecedented situation. But in both my prior roles here at (the Sanitation Department and the city Department of Environmental Protection), I’ve done a lot of emergency work. And in some of the work that we did on lead, a lot of cross-agency work to make sure that we are presenting an easy way for the public to understand what they can get and that we have information to be planning programs going forward.

When do you have time to sleep with the four titles that you hold?

It’s actually one of the things you learn in an emergency, is actually making sure that you’re at least getting a few hours of sleep every night, (it’s) critical if you’re going to be effective. You have to be prepared for the long haul to make sure that you’re successful. And it’s thinking through how you need to spend your time to accomplish your mission. And then I will say putting together a really strong team.

What can you tell me about the decision to continue the suspension of alternate side parking in your role as sanitation commissioner?

One of the things we saw very quickly in this, and particularly as things have closed and people have moved to telework, is we don’t have as many pedestrians out there. And so we are not seeing the sort of litter and other issues that we would normally see if everyone was out and we suspended (alternate side parking). But this is also not the first time we’ve suspended for a long period of time. We’ve suspended for long periods of time during snow emergencies. I think our longest was 32 days in a row. So we think as long as we are maintaining street cleanliness, really focusing our resources on the collection side of the equation is a very important thing to do.

Returning to your COVID-19 food czar role, what are some of the alternative means of providing food? I’ve seen potentially contracting with ride-hailing and shipping companies to deliver food to people.

I think it will be a combination of delivery service and we are actually working with the (New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission) on slowly (setting) up something that connects the TLC drivers with the vulnerable population. And then the second is really going to be sort of, how do we create hubs to distribute? One of the things that’s true about this as a hunger emergency is you can’t use soup kitchens; you can’t use any of these places where in the past somebody might have done it that way. We need to be thinking in a whole different (way). How do we get food to people, but don’t allow them to congregate together?

So a lot of this is still sort of in the planning stage?

We have, I would say, a conceptual framework for what we are working toward. And then we are also now putting in place the back end of, we need contracts for meals and other things along those lines. I think we still have a little bit of time. My main concern is as we think toward the end of the month when people normally have challenges with running out of money for food.

Rebecca C. Lewis
is deputy state politics reporter at City & State.