Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Park Avenue Armory (“Armory”) and the Food Bank For New York City (“Food Bank”) are both focused on supporting the New York City community, but in very different ways. The Food Bank nourishes bodies and Park Avenue Armory nourishes souls.

The Food Bank is one of the nation’s largest hunger relief organizations, working with a network of over 900 nonprofits working on hunger alleviation. The Armory is dedicated to presenting unconventional visual and performing art, with arts education programs (Armory Arts Education) providing free opportunities for youth including student performances for all Armory productions, in-depth curriculum-based residencies at partner schools, and a paid and highly mentored Youth Corps internship program.

Despite different missions focusing on very different outcomes, the pandemic economic shutdown led to unexpected and profound changes. These changes continue to affect both nonprofits deeply, even as New York City gingerly “reopens.” Here is the story of some unexpected lessons that a pandemic—and the need to adjust to survive—had on both organizations.

Taking Stock

When the pandemic hit, both the Food Bank and the Armory chose to conduct rapid inventory audits. This meant taking stock of available skills, knowledge, materials, capital, time, and energy.

Even—or perhaps especially—in times of crises, a proactive approach to planning, executing, and iteration is critical to inform building a completely new program from scratch and avoiding half-baked facsimiles of previous in-person programs. Taking stock was a critical first step in decision-making and program development that allowed both organizations to pivot quickly. 

Taking Stock at the Food Bank

For the Food Bank, a vital initial step was to assess the operational status of community-based partners. This was critical because people who are hungry do not get food from food banks; they get food from food pantries, which are supplied by food banks. No food pantries, no food distribution.

The Food Bank’s assessment revealed a significant contraction of operating programs, with just over 40 percent closed in April 2020. The food distribution partners that were still open saw demand intensify, with an approximately 65 percent increase in demand. This was not surprising given how many New Yorkers lost their jobs when the economy shut down. Nonetheless, the bottom line was increased demand and decreased supply—a dangerous combination.

The network of community partners looked to the Food Bank for food, non-food, and personal protective equipment (PPE) provisions that addressed the increased demand.

The Food Bank was able to respond. First, this required assessing all food and nonfood inventory levels and reviewing incoming loads for supply chain interruptions within the first 24 hours. Simultaneously, the Food Bank immediately contacted funders to issue emergency waivers to redirect food to open food pantries. These waivers enabled fresh produce that was restricted to specific grantees (some of whom had closed) to be sent to those providers who remained open.

Taking Stock at the Armory

The pandemic, of course, halted all live performances. A March 2021 New York State Comptroller’s Office report noted that the arts sector was the hardest hit economically while another report from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs found a 78 percent decrease of arts education program staff for New York City nonprofits. Taking stock was critical to pivot arts education programming. The first step was to catalogue artistic assets that could be effectively translated to a virtual experience. The Armory Arts Education staff initiated the inventory, surveying youth participants on their interests, and assessing staff skills and expertise.

Staff collected and organized archived digital works for collective review to identify those that could transcend small screens and avoid potential pitfalls of virtual programming, as well as effectively act as mediums for interpreting and examining themes in the current historical moment. One program of the Armory was called Capstone, a program that built technical film skills in which students learned to produce films responding to the world they see. Over 50 unique Armory artistic event artifacts were identified, including films, videos, and other media, which were trimmed to about 20 for group review. Systematically collecting, organizing, and reviewing together allowed the team to select Julian Rosefeldt’s 2015 film series Manifesto, which features individual and collective elements, as well as easy entry into topical, personal themes, making it well suited for adaptation to a virtual program. Next, staff considered students’ interest in media work, as well as drawing information from student surveys, to identify individual student needs.

An inventory of staff knowledge, experiences, and skills created an alignment of roles and responsibilities so that teaching artists and staff members could take the lead on relevant aspects of the Capstone project. This process built upon the existing artworks and skills that could most easily and appropriately be adapted for virtual programming.

For instance, the program’s lead teaching artist had prior experience in film editing and screenwriting, which became part of the lesson plan and art creation process as students tried out real-world skills to create their own films. Additionally, behind the scenes, tech-savvy staff with prior experience in media and digital learning provided structures and mechanisms for communication to allow for smoother project management and creative community building on Zoom—even preparing a “best practice” document that was distributed to Armory teaching staff.

Iterative Partnering with Stakeholders

To maintain sustained and meaningful programming throughout constant change and uncertainty, the Food Bank and the Armory worked with a diverse group of internal and external stakeholders. Amid COVID-19, no nonprofit could afford to be an island. This required careful attention to feedback loops and a deepening of involvement with all stakeholders and networks throughout the design, implementation, and review of programs.

For the Food Bank, this required conducting weekly interview calls with each nonprofit partner to better understand their very specific needs. This had not been done before but was essential in the chaos of the pandemic. The rapid inventory audit identified staff whose workload declined and moved them to where they were most needed, which was often the COVID outreach team. Additionally, corporate volunteer groups who had assisted with warehouse operations were rerouted to support this work. These interviews identified PPE (personal protective equipment) needs for community partners on the ground, specific food needs that emerged as supply chains were disrupted, and capital equipment needs like refrigeration or shelving to safely store foods coming in. In May 2020, Food Bank conducted a survey (linked here) with community partners to gain additional insight on food security changes citywide. As best practices emerged across the city, the data were aggregated into the COVID response page in a web-based member center for community partners.

The Armory faced very different challenges, but it too found that greater involvement with program partners was critical. The Arts Education team institutionalized more team meetings to ensure the lines of communication were open. Already featuring a culture that embraced regular feedback loops, the frequency, types, and dosage of connections among staff and with students, teachers, and administrators were amplified. While the documented meetings are likely missing countless unplanned, unscheduled interactions (emails, texts, phone calls, quick Zoom/FaceTime chats), the number of meetings increased by over 376 percent, from 42 meetings a year in 2019 to over 200 in 2020.

A critical piece in all this was the systematic documentation of communications. The humble and unassuming tasks of rapidly documenting, collecting, filing, and synthesizing a flurry of information and ideas that all stakeholders can utilize in real time became the fuel for successful improvement and iteration. These live, online documents allowed anyone to quickly access, understand, and contribute to the ongoing, changing work. Four key communications principles emerged:

  1. Every communication must be anchored to the mission.
  2. Communication requires action. Are the next steps clear? Are they SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound)?
  3. Focus on being kind, respectful, and thoughtful in all communications, with consideration for the stakeholders involved.
  4. Follow up no matter what, including a summary with next steps identifying “what,” “when,” and “by whom.” 

Practicing Radical Responsiveness

Planning was important—without the careful assessment of capacity and involvement of all stakeholders, neither the Food Bank nor Armory Arts Education would have achieved much during the pandemic. At the same time, being prepared to change plans at a moment’s notice was critical. This flexibility, or “radical responsiveness,” meant a willingness—or a fearlessness—to adjust the status quo, try something new, or change established, built-in processes or programs to better partner with and respond to communities.

Radical responsiveness is demonstrated less by the “how” and more concerned with the “so what, to what effect”—linking the organization’s mission and goals to action, even if the action itself was new and different. For the Food Bank, this required a four-pillar network distribution strategy, rooted in network-based organizing with community groups. The four pillars include:

  1. Food Distributions. The Food Bank expanded access through pop-up distributions at marquee locations like Lincoln Center and the Barclay Center and new partnerships with over 16 healthcare facilities and 23 food hubs outfitted with frozen and dry food products, PPE, baby products, and pet food based on availability.
  2. Capital Infrastructure Resources. The Food Bank worked with vendors to provide commercial refrigeration, freezers, shelving, forklifts, and pallet jacks to over 200 partners, a 25 percent increase from the pre-COVID period.
  3. General Operating Supports. This was a critical component to sustaining the increasing costs of day-to-day operations for community partners.
  4. Nonfood Resources. Items like PPE, health and hygiene items, and pet food were distributed.

The network distribution strategy was an unprecedented $14 million funded investment, which enabled the network to distribute 63 percent more food than the previous year.

Again, the Armory faced very different circumstances but also had to be radically responsive by prioritizing considerations around mental health and the cultural needs of its stakeholders. Projects helped youth articulate how they were feeling through art and offered an alternative to isolation—building meaning and community together. Amid the uprising against anti-Black racism that followed the murder of George Floyd, the Armory Arts Education program created a new initiative to explicitly support participants through gentle movement, meditation, and breathwork. This Radical Self-Care program, inspired by the practices of “radical” artists, served all communities (staff, partners, participants) and incorporated kinesthetic learning, meditative practices, and social supports. In all, ten programs were created or profoundly altered to respond to community needs.

Culturally responsive practices were already a core element of practice. However, a willingness to revisit and change how training, program planning, and facilitation happens led to new developments. The changes included a deepened system of designing and reviewing curriculum by many stakeholders across varied backgrounds/experiences (including participants and near-peers, and a roster of diverse, multilingual teaching artists); developing and administering anti-racism professional development; and designing increased opportunities for personal check-ins and individualized supports. The intentional design of individual and communal artistic creation served as an outlet for engagement with current events while building a community of support.

No Return to Normal: Lasting Lessons

Lessons from pandemic adaptation have irrevocably reshaped the Food Bank and Armory Arts Education programs. Operating with adaptability has become an enduring mindset. The practices of continually taking stock of capacities, centering communications and stakeholders more meaningfully, and embracing a radical responsiveness to extend program scope have become core competencies to both organizations and their missions.

The Food Bank’s biggest lesson focused on how operations could be immediately halted due to COVID-positive cases at locations. Knowing capacity, centering communication, and radical responsiveness were critical to pivoting and addressing service interruptions to avoid gaps in services. When the network experienced mass closures, designing and operating pop-up distributions provided food to those needing it most. Most notably, Food Bank is committed to sustaining the comprehensive network distribution strategy for the network of nonprofit partners.

The pandemic served as a crucible for Armory Arts Education by highlighting and sharpening existing iterative and adaptive practices and charting a new course with even greater stakeholder involvement, an expanded program template that constantly examines and meets the moment for their community in any context, and revamped professional development to provide high quality, customized supports. The profound change is evident in the continued pursuit of intergenerational programming introduced during the pandemic. It is evident in embracing aspects of remote and hybrid models that were new in 2020, which will allow Armory Arts Education to have a broader—and deeper—reach.

Reflecting on the changes the pandemic brought to both organizations, one constant remains: an indefatigable commitment to mission, nourishing the bodies and souls of New Yorkers, regardless of what surprises or challenges emerge.