No. 10: An Angel in Queens

The catalyst: Every weekday, Jorge Munoz starts his shift at 5:15 a.m. He drives a school bus, picking up elementary schoolchildren at a bus stop and dropping them off at a few schools on Long Island in New York. As part of his regular route home, he passes a food factory.

Something always bothered him: “These guys, they were throwing away a lot of food. A lot of trays,” he said. One day in 2004, Munoz couldn’t stand seeing good food go to waste. He pulled over and asked if they would give him the goods.

The food wasn’t for him. “I knew some families, they having trouble, they had no food to eat and no job,” he explained. “Two weeks later, I came back to get some food and gave it to about 10 families that didn’t have food. Only two people in those families had a job.”

Munoz, a Colombian immigrant who came to America about 24 years ago, loves to eat, especially food from his homeland. One night he ventured into the Jackson Heights neighborhood for some Colombian cuisine. Munoz noticed about a dozen day laborers milling around and pulled over. “I rolled down my window and asked them what are they doing. They tell me they are immigrants, they are hungry and homeless.”

The food he received from the factory turned out to be a one-time thing. Munoz scrambled to figure out how to continue helping the hungry families and the day laborers he had befriended. He collected small food donations from local businesses, but those weren’t enough. He started to use money from his own salary to buy food, brown-bag meals, and handed them out to eight day laborers, three times a week. The 8 soon tripled to 24.

A few months later, Munoz and his mother started cooking meals for 45 people in his shoe-box-sized apartment. The economy worsened, and the hungry population grew. More than half of his weekly salary of $700 went to buy more food, drinks, and packaging.

The act: For the past six and a half years, Munoz has been delivering home-cooked meals every night out of his white Toyota pickup. He has missed only one night, when a snowstorm shut down all lines of transportation. These days, about 140 people — many of them homeless, jobless immigrants — queue up in a line that stretches nearly one block.

His makeshift meal program has turned into a well-oiled nonprofit called An Angel in Queens. A handful of volunteers, including his mother and sister, begin prepping the food around 1:30 p.m. When Munoz returns from his day shift, he switches gears from bus driver to good samaritan, with a 10-minute break for coffee in between.

The volunteers have learned to work in synchronicity in a tight space, shuffling past each other in the apartment turned soup kitchen. The kitchen and living room look more like food pantries, stacked with crates of small juice cartons, produce bags, and trays of hot food. There’s always the smell of onions cooking in oil, beans, and meat, but the menu changes nightly, ranging from ham and cheese sandwiches to beans, rice, and chicken.  The family multiplies whatever they’re having for dinner by 140.

Munoz attributes his motives to “God. God and my mom. My mom since my childhood teach me to share, and that’s what we are doing here.”

And he shares the family spirit with every person who receives a meal. “They feel like a part of the family. Most of them, they are alone. I got my mom, my sister, my nephew, my friends, a lot of members of my family are out here. But they are alone. But at least they feel like they have a small family taking care of them.”

The ripple: Munoz’s generosity has been contagious, and his friends and the community have chipped in. “A couple of times a week, I go to collect food from my friends. Some buy extra oil and rice. Other friends, some have restaurants tell me to go pick up extra food they cook,” Munoz says. “Whatever I don’t have, I need, I go to stores to pick up.” In June of 2008 a couple of volunteers helped him set up his website and nonprofit.

Soon word about An Angel in Queens spread through local, national, and international media. The blogosphere blasted his message. His selfless act has been featured in the New York Times, CNN, Univision, and Telemundo. That coverage has inspired the global community to reach out with support: monetary donations, appliances, food, drinks, and lots of thank-you emails.

The Mira Foundation has replicated his operation. In two cities in New York, volunteers pack about 300 sandwiches and hand them out to the needy in New Jersey and 150 people in Long Island, three times a week.

Munoz has received personal recognition as well. Renowned chef Jamie Oliver featured him on his cooking show, “Jamie’s American Road Trip.” He also got a presidential nod. Munoz, his mother, sister, and nephew visited President Barack Obama at the White House in August and received the Presidential Citizens Medal, the second-highest civilian honor behind the Medal of Freedom.

His biggest reward comes from those he serves. “You have to see their faces, when they smile, that’s the way I get paid,” Munoz says. “When they smile, thanks God, this guy got something to eat tonight.”

Donate to An Angel in Queens.

–Toan Lam