Feeding Long Island

Food insecurity hits close to home and finds a helping hand.

Food share recipients patiently wait in line to fill boxes with produce, bread, dairy products and flowers all donated from local markets and farms.

Food share recipients patiently wait in line to fill boxes with produce, bread, dairy products and flowers all donated from local markets and farms.

A tall elderly man with blond hair tugs his red suitcase along as he waits with about 100 others in a line that snakes around a parking lot in Huntington Station on a cool September night.

A few young children stay close to their parents on line, holding their numbered tickets, while older kids play along the sidewalk. There is a bustle and chatter along the line.

All have come, on foot or by car or bus, for the free food. And this pop-up food share has the good stuff.

Volunteers from Community Solidarity, the organization that runs the weekly event, has loaded hundreds of pounds of it onto a string of long folding tables.

There is melon and papaya, mounds of greens, containers of organic kale, salads of spinach, red quinoa and wheat berry, and still more fresh produce packed in boxes beside the tables. No meat, but plenty of eggs and milk, a variety of cheeses and piles of whole grain bread and rolls.

Community Solidarity offers a weekly food share to hundreds of residents of Huntington Station, Long Island.

Community Solidarity offers a weekly food share to hundreds of residents of Huntington Station, Long Island.

Jon Stepanian, the 32-year-old executive director of the food share group, moves up and down the street directing volunteers and checking inventory with his iPad.

In his shadow of beard, jeans, a T-shirt and jacket, he look like he drinks a lot of coffee. Most of his days and nights he mans the food share’s hotline and picks up food himself or sends volunteers to supermarkets like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, to caterers, farms or any other business that calls the share with a donation.

About 255,500 Long Islanders are food insecure, more than 10 percent of the population, according to a 2014 report by Feeding America, a national hunger-relief network of food banks.

Stepanian reckons that with the five weekly food shares his organization holds each week in communities from Hempstead Village to Riverhead, they supply up to a week’s worth of food to 2 percent of Long Islanders who cannot, at times, afford healthy meals each day. The government calls that situation food insecurity.

About 255,500 Long Islanders are food insecure, more than 10 percent of the population, according to a 2014 report by Feeding America, a national hunger-relief network of food banks.

Food insecurity doesn’t mean abject hunger, but it does mean that people will make trade-offs about whether to skip a meal.

Food donations are organized curbside by Community Solidarity volunteers.

Food donations are organized curbside by Community Solidarity volunteers.

“Do I eat breakfast this morning, or do I buy gas to get to work, or do I pay for heating oil, or do I pay for school supplies for my kids, or lunch,” Stepanian says, describing the trade-offs. “That’s really the dominant theme for the majority of people coming here.”

The Feeding America report estimates that about 89,000, or 14 percent of the food insecure, are children. Roughly half of those children live in households that earn more than twice the federal poverty level, making them ineligible for federal child nutritional assistance.

Their families turn to food shares, food banks serving hundreds, pantries and soup kitchens and a patchwork of service organizations across Long Island to make ends meet.

More than half of the people “using food pantries and soup kitchens on Long Island are not poor people, they are the working poor,” says Paule T. Pachter, executive director of Long Island Cares—the Harry Chapin Food Bank, based in Hauppauge.

The Harry Chapin Food Bank location of Long Island Cares, Hauppauge, Long Island.

The Harry Chapin Food Bank location of Long Island Cares, Hauppauge, Long Island.

Such is the cost of living on Long Island that a person could be making “up to $60,000 a year, but still need food assistance,” Pachter says.

The man with the red suitcase, Ivan Samel, makes much less. He is a 73-year-old retired electronics technician who lives in Copiague with his wife and daughter.

Ivan goes to the Huntington Station Food Share once a month, he says, to supplement his modest monthly income: a Social Security check and $200 in food stamps.  

“It’s not enough,” he says of his budget, as he fills his suitcase and another bag with food. “This really helps out.”  

Community Solidarity volunteers pose in front of stocked food tables for a group shot.

Community Solidarity volunteers pose in front of stocked food tables for a group shot.

Some of the numbers of food insecure are stuck with low wages because they are undocumented, others have lost jobs or earnings following the Great Recession or lost their homes to Hurricane Sandy in 2012. These events have changed not only the numbers of those needing help but the demographics as well.

According to the report, 34 percent of food insecure people are white, 35 percent are African-American, and 24 percent are Latino. About 16 percent are elderly, 60 years or older.

And while the food banks, food shares and pantries offer food, they are also providing other important services, like helping folks apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP, also known as “food stamps”) or job counseling. Some run homeless shelters or, as in the case of the food share volunteers, find sleeping bag donations for homeless men taking shelter in the woods.

Eric, a 46-year-old Greenport resident, moved in with his mother when he lost his job in the hospitality industry last year. He tried to apply for food stamps and other benefits when his unemployment insurance ran out, he says. But the process was a quagmire.

A volunteer arrives with a car packed with donated flowers.

A volunteer arrives with a car packed with donated flowers.

“Social services is extremely difficult to navigate,” Eric says in a telephone interview.

For two months, Eric and his mother, who receives a monthly social security check, borrowed money from relatives to pay bills and buy food.

He finally found Island Harvest, the other major food bank on Long Island, through a career center in Patchogue. A worker there helped him successfully apply for food stamps and referred him to two pantries.

“If it wasn’t for Island Harvest, I don’t know where I would be right now,” Eric says. A cook by trade, he is meticulous about planning out meals and stretching the food pantry groceries he picks up twice a month.

“If it wasn’t for Island Harvest, I don’t know where I would be right now,” Eric says.

With $65,000 dollars in student loan debt and an advanced degree, Eric is among the growing ranks of well-educated Long islanders who find themselves unemployable.

Feeding America estimates that 77 percent of the food insecure have a high school degree or more, and 34 percent have either some college, a bachelor’s degree or some additional licensing or certification.

Some of the educated but financially struggling Long Islanders embrace food sharing as a way of life.

Melissa Hebenstreit, a 32-year-old Stony Brook resident and food share volunteer, studied food waste in college.  

Melissa Hebenstreit, a 32-year-old Stony Brook resident is a frequent volunteer.

Melissa Hebenstreit, a 32-year-old Stony Brook resident is a frequent volunteer.

“I’m a big foodie, farm- or dumpster-to-table kind of person,” she says. “When you see food sharing, it changes who you are.”

As a volunteer, she picks up donations from farm stands, supermarkets and restaurants, then delivers the food to the shares in Huntington Station and Farmingville.

Sporting long voluminous dreads covered by a bandanna kerchief, and an upper arm of tattoos,  Hebenstreit adds a dose of hipness to the Huntington Station food share.

She also packs a “banana box” of food for herself at the share. She earns part-time hourly wages as a coffee shop barista, but “I’ve fallen below the poverty line level,” she says. The federal poverty level for a household of two (Hebenstreit is married) is $16,020.

In Suffolk County, 65 percent of Long Islanders who are food insecure are earning less than twice the poverty level for their household size. In Nassau, the number is 59 percent.

When the food stamps run out for the month, they can turn to the hundreds of food pantries, soup kitchens, veterans support programs and senior centers that hand over a bag of groceries, household items, school supplies and myriad other essentials.

Food donations are organized curbside by Community Solidarity volunteers.

Many of these are supplied by Long Island Cares and Island Harvest, the two large food banks that take donations from food drives, farms, supermarkets and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Each has a 25,000-square-foot warehouse with cavernous freezers for perishable food. Food comes in, is sorted into bins and then sorted again into boxes that are sent off to pantries or carried into trucks that come to pick up the food.

While food pantries tend to be indoors, the food share in Huntington was not hiding. They start at night after work hours. On the food share line, people didn’t noticeably display signs of hunger. There were no distended bellies or ribs protruding, nor especially gaunt faces. Some are overweight, though perhaps not from eating too much food but the wrong kind of food.

The Feeding America report estimates that there is at least one family member with diabetes in 21 percent of households using food bank pantries on Long Island. About half of those households had at least one person with high blood pressure.  

Those health statistics point to “food deserts,” poor areas where there is little access to fresh food.  

With the community garden and farmers market in Huntington Village, Huntington Station has healthier food options fairly close by.

“But in an area like downtown Hempstead, you’ll find a dry orange or some iceberg lettuce,” Stepanian says. “You’re not going to find anything nutritious.”  

Community Solidarity

The same is true for Wyandanch, Brentwood, Coram, Mastic and parts of Farmingville and Riverhead, he adds.

There are other more extreme deserts, like the Shinnecock Reservation on the East End. “They have one of the highest rates of poverty and hunger in New York State,” Stepanian says. “They have no access to healthier food items. That’s absurd for Long Island.”

Jon Stepanian sees the persistent food insecurity on Long Island as a problem that can be solved. “There are 27 million pounds of food waste on Long Island,” he says. “To feed the hungry people on Long Island would take only about 1.5 million pounds.”

Supermarkets are slow to move forward on donating food that would go straight into the dumpster, but there are exceptions. Like Stop & Shop. Instead of throwing meat nearing its expiration date into a dumpster, Stop & Shop supermarkets store it in the freezer, then donate it to Island Harvest to distribute to its pantries and food programs.

Community Solidarity

In 2015, the store donated 505,000 pounds of beef, poultry and pork to the food bank, according to Randi Shubin Dresner, executive director of Island Harvest. Along with donations from farms, that added protein and fresh fruits and vegetables to approximately 1,950,935 meals last year, she adds.

Pachter, from Long Island Cares, frames the food waste issue simply: “You can’t sell it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t eat it.”

As the time gets late at the Huntington Station Food Share, a few latecomers pick through what remains. People can wait on the line multiple times. There is no documentation required or forms to fill out.

Dozens of flower bouquets wrapped in cellophane are still on the table, a Trader Joe’s donation that came with boxes of food. The leftover flowers will go to a nearby nursing home. A middle-aged man stops at the table and asks if he can take one.

“Sure,” Stepanian says. “Take as many as you want.”

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Valerie Cotsalas is a freelance journalist based on Long Island who has written for the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and other publications.