Two events in Nassau County last week put the spotlight on what politicians and other stakeholders call “food insecurity.”
On June 29, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand visited a warehouse in Bethpage—used by Island Harvest Food Bank—to highlight her efforts to strengthen the farm-to-table pipeline and aid people adversely affected by the pandemic.
“With more than 2 million New Yorkers out of work and many facing reduced hours and reduced pay, putting food on the table has become a real struggle,” Gillibrand said. “Food banks have seen a demand for help that has skyrocketed.”
Two days later, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran presided over a massive food distribution effort at the Nassau Coliseum parking lot in which more than 4,000 boxes of food were handed out to families in need.
The events were linked. That Monday, volunteers had filled the 4,000 boxes with more than 100,000 pounds of food for the anti-hunger effort on Wednesday. Among the packers at the Island Harvest Family Meal Box Sorting Program were members of the Civil Air Patrol and Team Rubicon, an organization made up of military veterans who help the community in various ways.
During her visit, Gillibrand joined a volunteer line along with state Senator Jim Gaughran (D–Northport) to help fill several boxes.
Curran praised Glenn Lostritto of Steel Equities for allowing Island Harvest to use the facilities free of charge. Steel Equities owns numerous properties at the former Grumman manufacturing facility.
Lostritto told Anton Media Group, “We’re going to let Island Harvest stay here for a little bit of time. We’re happy to have them here and admire what they’re doing. It’s incredible.”
Curran said the county has put aside $1 million in federal Community Development Block Grants-COVID for its Community Food Distribution Initiative. It has provided an estimated 20,000 families with a week’s worth of supplies able to feed four people.
According to a press release, “Since late April, Nassau County has held two dozen small and large-scale distributions as part of this initiative. The county will continue its partnership with Island Harvest and Long Island Cares with both large-scale events and pop-up distributions this summer.”
Curran observed, “I want to thank Island Harvest for being very efficient and running a smooth operation.”
She added, “We want to make sure that everyone, every community makes it to the other side of this pandemic.”
In introducing Gillibrand, Curran praised her “for fighting for us at the federal level” while the senator in turn thanked Curran for her leadership and “for your determination to protect families during this crisis.”
The senator lauded Island Harvest for the work that it and its 400-plus community partners do year-round.
“Organizations such as Island Harvest give us hope despite the dark days we’ve been in. They’re really inspiring and they’re really impressive,” Gillibrand said.
She asked if it was true that 4,000 food boxes were being prepared behind her, and when she heard the affirmative, she said, “That’s amazing. Those boxes will be a lifeline for families in crisis right now.”
Gillibrand lamented that in this time of unprecedented need, farmers were dumping their milk or slaughtering livestock or burying produce because the pandemic has shuttered schools, restaurants and other institutional buyers.
She said that legislation she introduced in May, the Food Bank Access to Farm Fresh Produce Act, “would alleviate the strain on food banks and our food supply by cutting out middlemen to deliver fresh, nutritious fruits and vegetables from farms to food banks on Long Island.”
Due to the coronavirus lockdown, the act has yet to come out of the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. Gillibrand is the first New York senator in more than four decades to serve on the committee.
“That would give the food bank much-needed fresh supplies and help with the normal staples that are given out,” Gillibrand said. “But it gives the farmers much-needed business in these tough times. It would also cover the food banks’ increased costs, such as additional cold storage capacity.”
She added, “Our food banks play a vital role in response to COVID-19. They shouldn’t be forced to shoulder this burden alone.”
A press release from Gillibrand’s office stated, “During the COVID-19 crisis, more than 30 million Americans are currently jobless and many are struggling to put food on the table. According to Feeding America, nearly 100 percent of food banks reported an increase in demand for food assistance during the pandemic, with an average increase of 59 percent.”
The senator concluded, “For anyone to go hungry in a country as rich as America is unconscionable. I promise that I will keep on fighting for your families. But these are very challenging times. Organizations such as Island Harvest are really making a difference in protecting our families.”
Asked by Anton Media Group about her efforts to ensure that the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamp) covers the increasing need during the pandemic, the senator replied, “It’s outrageous. In the Senate, I don’t have a Republican sponsor to increase SNAP benefits. There’s nothing that should be more bipartisan than hunger.”
She added, “[Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell has fought tooth and nail in the last four [coronavirus relief] packages not to increase SNAP benefits. I’m hopeful maybe in this next package that we could get a vote on it. I have a bill to increase SNAP benefits by 30 percent.”
Scope of the Effort
Also speaking during Gillibrand’s visit was Island Harvest President and CEO Randi Shubin Dresner.
“On behalf of Long Islanders who struggle with food-insecurity, we appreciate Senator Gillibrand’s support of our efforts in helping make sure that no one goes without something as basic as food,” she said, adding that her organization has “produced and distributed 1.5 million more meals this year than we did last year at the same time.”
In the warehouse, she revealed, Island Harvest volunteers had packed more than 40,000 boxes of food like the ones displayed on a table adjacent to the podium.
Two days later, standing within sight of a long line of people waiting to receive their packages at the Nassau Coliseum parking lot, Dresner gave more insight into the problem faced by residents served by her group.
“It’s a humbling experience,” she said. “In my 19 years at Island Harvest I have never seen anything like this before. We’ve been through the Great Recession and we’ve been through Superstorm Sandy, so we’ve learned a lot from those experiences. We know that we will be doing this work and similar work for probably at least two years till everybody gets resettled.”
She again noted, as she did during Sen. Gillibrand’s visit two days earlier, that people who used to contribute to and volunteer with Island Harvest are now using her organization’s service. Residents driving luxury cars, she revealed, are being aided.
“We’re always respectful of everybody who comes to Island Harvest for help,” she emphasized. “And we never ask questions. If you come for food, you get food.”
She added, “This is a no-judgement zone because we know they were doing well before the pandemic. People had really wonderful jobs and were supporting their families.”
Then the pandemic hit, and families emptied their pantries and fridges, and many more were needing a helping hand. Among the factors, she noted, were thousands of children who had been getting lunches at school were now home, contributing to their family’s food consumption.
“Island Harvest is committed to helping people for as long as they need us,” she promised.
“We have a very important message to give out,” Dresner stated. “People need to know there is hunger across Long Island. There is a lot of poverty and a lot of hunger and we need to do something about it.”
Dresner said that her organization is in what she called “emergency response mode” and expects to do emergency response work through January 2022.
With a nod toward the long lines forming around the arena, she said, “It’s hard for our volunteers. It’s hard for our staff. Every time we do these distributions we hear it—it’s very humbling.”
She added, “People don’t want to stand on a food line. They stand on a food line because they have to.”
Dresner expressed her gratitude to the corporate sponsors and the residents who have supported Island Harvest during the pandemic.
“It costs a lot of money to buy the food, to run the trucks, to support the staff and to get the materials out where it needs to be,” she said. “The need is ongoing and it’s not going away.”
Speaking before Dresner, Curran said, “This is the largest food distribution in New York State history. And the fact of the matter is that this is a wonderful operation. We’re helping many people, but the fact that we need to do it is very sad. People have lost their jobs. They’re losing their paychecks, and we’re just happy that we can be there in the breach to meet their needs.”
Curran praised Steve Morelli, commissioner of the county’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) and his team for for being “pivotal during the crisis and making these food distributions run smoothly and precisely.”
“My administration is committed to addressing this unprecedented surge of food insecurity on Long Island,” Curran affirmed.
The executive mentioned the many people and organizations that helped make the event possible, and stated, “It’s a group effort, a private, nonprofit, government and business partnership and it makes me proud to live here in Nassau County.”
Dresner observed, “To put the resources together so that we could do something like this today is absolutely unbelievable. The amount of moving parts is amazing.”
Dresner lauded the OEM and the county’s police department for “their absolutely fabulous” support behind the scenes.
“Everybody is so heartfelt about doing this work and making sure that every detail is taken care of,” she said.
Final Words and Numbers
Replying to a reporter, Dresner admitted that Island Harvest’s operational model has changed. Before the pandemic, it was heavily dependent on donated products from wholesalers and distributors, but the crisis caused a dramatic cutback on donations, and the food bank immediately switched to a purchase model.
“Now, nearly 90 percent of the food the we distribute is purchased,” Dresner said.
“As we work to revive our economy, Nassau County will remain committed to addressing the food insecurity crisis triggered by COVID-19,” Curran said in a statement. “We’ve reached every corner of the county with our food distribution events, and we’re not done yet. We will continue putting food on the table for families in need throughout this summer with distributions large and small.”
The need to provide direct food support is evidenced by the increased number of applications to the SNAP. The number of Nassau County residents seeking this assistance in April tripled, going from 1,095 in April 2019 to 3,786 in April 2020. The number of SNAP applicants increased 125 percent in May 2020 (2,385) compared to May 2019 (1,057). June 2020 SNAP applications (1,541) declined 35 percent from May 2020, but still represent a 41 percent increase from June 2019 (1,092).
Thanks to a donation from the Town of Hempstead, Island Harvest will begin a home delivery program later this summer for residents who are homebound on account of the coronavirus.
Long Island Cares-The Harry Chapin Food Bank, also has food distribution affiliates throughout Long Island. Residents who are interested in mobile food delivery will need to call or email Long Island Cares for a phone assessment at 631-582-3663 ext. 109 or email email@example.com. Long Island Cares asks that residents wait approximately 24-48 hours for a response. To stay up to date with Long Island Cares and their protocols regarding COVID-19 visit, www.licares.org/uncategorized/long-island-cares-covid-19-updates.
To contact Island Harvest, call 631-873-4775 or visit www.islandharvest.org.
For a full list of food pantries in your area, visit www.licares.org or islandharvest.org. Residents should call the food pantry ahead of time to confirm hours of operation and to ensure that proper protocols are taken to maintain the safety of the volunteers and the community.
Additional reporting by Caroline Ryan.