Local Food Pantries Meet Rising Level Of Food Insecurity

Anne McCann checks stock in the stockroom as members of the Springs Food Pantry prepare bags of food for distribution. Michael Heller photos

When she first started relying on the support of the Springs Food Pantry, Barbara (who asked not to be identified by her real name) admits to feeling mixed emotions. She had worked hard her entire life, raising two children and putting them through college, and then becoming a grandmother. In her late 60s, she and her partner were both retired and living on Social Security, but still facing several more years of mortgage payments, along with the usual costs of living. Seeking part-time work to help ease the financial burden wasn’t an option because of health concerns. Yet seeking help to address food insecurity was something she never expected to do. But when the COVID-19 virus pandemic descended on the country in the spring, the pantry became a vital support network for Barbara, not only helping ease the financial burden for her and her partner, but enabling her to put food on the table for her family members as well, who, like many Americans, experienced unexpected financial pressure due to reduced work hours, with no clear idea when life would go back to normal.

Relying on the pantry has been a humbling experience, Barbara said, but in sharing her thoughts about it, one emotion continually rises to the surface — gratitude.

“I appreciate that I have a community I can lean on,” she said. “It was an adjustment for me to ask for help, but when I saw how much it helped, I just felt thankful and grateful for them.”

Her story is familiar for a growing number of people, many of whom are experiencing food insecurity for the first time in their lives because of the pandemic, making the role of local food pantries more vital than ever. After seeing a doubling and even tripling of recipients in the earlier months of the pandemic, local pantry managers saw rates stabilize during the summer months, as people gained income from seasonal jobs or were able to return to work. With case numbers on the rise again, and seasonal work drying up, the concern for another spike in need is real, and pantries have been forced to get creative at one of their busiest and most important times of the year — the holiday season.

Members of the Springs Food Pantry prepare bags of food for distribution.

Unprecedented Times, Uncertain Future

When the coronavirus pandemic took hold in March, food pantries felt the effects almost immediately, reporting a sharp spike in demand. During the spring, St. Rosalie’s Community Food Pantry in Hampton Bays — which serves people in East Quogue and south of the duck in Flanders as well — was feeding 900 people per month, roughly three times the number of people it usually supports, according to Catherine O’Leary-Andrejack, the director of parish social ministry at the church. When lockdown restrictions were eased and seasonal jobs became available during warmers months, the numbers went down a bit and stabilized, but with colder months coming and infection rates on the rise again, there is trepidation.

“Will we be feeding 900 people again during Thanksgiving?” O’Leary-Andrejack said in an interview in early October, pointing out that the church typically gives every family a turkey for the holiday. “I don’t know. It’s an unknown right now.”

Alice Houseknecht, the director of the Montauk Food Pantry, which is based at the St. Therese Parish Center on Essex Street, said they served quadruple the number of people in that same time period, and are bracing for another rise in numbers. At the Church of the Harvest in Riverhead, pantry coordinator Gwen Mack has been dealing with trying to pack donation bags alongside volunteers in a space that feels increasingly small as the numbers of recipients has reached 1,000. The Springs Food Pantry, located at the Springs Community Church on Old Stone Highway, served 203 households — totaling more than 750 people — during a Wednesday in early October, compared to 55 households and 175 people at the same time a year ago. Holly Wheaton, who runs the Springs pantry, said they expected a 350 percent increase in need for their Thanksgiving distribution, and a 400 percent increase at Christmas. In all of 2019, the East Hampton food pantry fed approximately 14,000 people, half of whom were children, and by September of this year, the pantry has already fed 21,000 individuals, a number pantry manager Vicki Littman said she expects to increase dramatically before the winter is over. The pantry opened up a satellite location at East Hampton High School this year to help meet the rise in demand. It’s one of many satellite or new pantries that have opened during the pandemic to meet the need, including set-ups at the Bridgehampton Child Care Center, and the Children’s Museum of the East End, among others.

“This year we’ve already seen an approximate 30 percent increase in need to date, which we are projecting to reach 40 percent by year’s end,” Littman said.

The nature of the pandemic and the need for seemingly endless adjustments to comply with the safety measures crucial to keeping infection rates under control has created a ripple effect for food pantries. The challenge of sourcing enough food to meet the increased demand is only part of the puzzle. The logistics of storing, preparing and distributing that food in the face of unprecedented restrictions is the biggest challenge managers and volunteers are currently facing, and they’re facing difficult pivots at a difficult time.

“The holiday season is a special time and seeing first-hand the number of Springs residents suffering from food insecurity is alarming,” Wheaton said. “Every Wednesday, we give our recipients five days worth of food, and at three meals a day that’s a total of 15 meals. During the holidays, we would like to do more, but I don’t anticipate handing out turkeys this Thanksgiving. Last year we partnered with Share the Harvest and prepared 215 pumpkin pies to give to our recipients, but this isn’t going to happen either.”

Wheaton said they would instead provide pantry staples for Thanksgiving, with some fresh fruit and produce and traditional “trimmings,” as well as a gift card to a local grocery store to allow recipients to purchase meat or poultry of their choosing.

Many pantries would typically allow recipients to come browse the selection of food they had available, but new safety measures mean those pantries often must resort to pre-packing food and asking recipients to book appointments to pick it up. Several pantries have pivoted to drive-through services, to limit exposure risk. Others have tried to re-create their usual set-ups in outdoor spaces or on porch areas. O’Leary-Andrejack pointed out that many of the volunteers that help run the food pantry at St. Rosalie’s are “super-seniors” and extra caution needs to be taken for their health and safety as well. Mack said the Church of the Harvest typically hosts a Thanksgiving dinner, which not only provides a healthy and hearty Thanksgiving meal for those in need, but, perhaps just as importantly — especially these days — a chance for human connection.

“Some people are home by themselves and they’d get to come out and talk to people,” Mack said. “People would really look forward to coming and socializing.”

Both the recipients and volunteers lament the loss of human connection the virus has wrought.

“We’ve been a choice pantry for the past five years, but all that has changed,” O’Leary-Andrejack said. “Now we have become pre-packaged and curbside pickup or by appointment only.”

Respecting “the dignity of choice,” has always been important, she said, but it’s a commitment that is often at odds with the required changes caused by the pandemic.

“We don’t want it to feel like, too bad for you, you’re in this situation so whatever you get, be happy with,” she said. “That doesn’t speak to the dignity of the human being. So we’re trying to find that balance of how do we engage with the community but still keep everyone safe and be part of the solution.”

The restrictions and changes have forced some outside-of-the-box thinking. Houseknecht pointed out that while donations of uncooked turkeys and other unprepared food items may be good for some of the recipients she helps serve in Montauk, it’s not ideal for others, who may live somewhere without access to an oven or even a hot plate or microwave.

“Some people don’t even have a can opener,” she said.

Being able to provide hot, cooked meals is important for many pantries as well, and Houseknect said that they created a partnership with Sam Joyce, who operates Sammy’s Food Truck in Montauk, where he agreed to donate a fully cooked chicken dinner to the pantry for every $10 donated by customers. He has a donation bucket set up at his popular food truck at the harbor entrance on West Lake Drive. It was an idea he came up with, and Houseknecht said she was thrilled.

Holly Wheaton adds bags of bagels to bags of food at the Springs Food Pantry.

Bridging The Gap

While each community and food pantry is facing its own unique set of challenges, a common thread when speaking with managers was their gratitude for the many ways the larger East End community has stepped up to help their fellow neighbors in a time of great need. One organization that came up repeatedly was All For the East End. AFTEE was founded in 2013 to help financially support, through a grant process, various non-profits on the East End that provided many different and vital community services. When the pandemic hit, the board members realized they needed to respond in a specific way.

“In March, when pantries started to feel the pressure of increasing numbers, we re-grouped and re-focused our efforts on food instability caused by the pandemic,” said Claudia Pilato, who serves as the president of AFTEE’s board of directors.

Since then, the group has raised more than $1 million and provided 56 grants to local food pantries and other organizations that pivoted to become food pantries during the crisis.

The financial support of AFTEE has enabled the food pantries to breathe a sigh of relief and remain confident over the past few months that they’d be able to meet the needs of the community. But Pilato addressed the fact that the pandemic has become a longer haul than anyone initially suspected and heading into the winter with no clear end in sight, continuing to provide those crucial funds could be an uphill battle.

“What we’re seeing now is that, at the moment, the numbers have stabilized, but we think the need for these services will spike again, and most pantries are saying the same thing,” she said, adding that there is increased need for other essentials: WIFI access; remote learning devices; diapers. “Food is crucial but it’s not just about food. I think where AFTEE comes in is to be a unifying voice for the needs across the East End. Sometimes people forget that the East End isn’t just a vacation spot; we have real people who have real jobs and families and need to provide for them.”

AFTEE’s main mission is to provide grants for organizations in need and let them do what they do best with that money, but they’ve provided support in other ways as well. Because many pantries have had to move to a pre-packaged model, many were running out of bags. AFTEE stepped in and secured bag donations for five different locations. Some pantries were unable to accept donations of food, even venison or fish from local hunters and fishermen, because of lack of freezer space. AFTEE was able to purchase refrigerators and freezers for the senior center in Bridgehampton, where food in now stored for three separate pantries, and they are hoping to do the same on the Shinnecock Reservation.

Pilato and the rest of her colleagues, who all work on a volunteer basis — AFTEE has no paid staff — said that while they are extremely grateful for the generous support of the community since the pandemic began, they hope the community is able to sustain that support.

“Our community on the East End has been so generous, but there gets to be a little bit of fatigue,” she said. “We can’t take the pedal off the metal. Right now, we’re re-focusing to make sure we can go back out to the community and see if we can raise more money. The demand is stable right now, but we have to be prepared for an upswing.”

Silver Linings

How sharp that upswing will be is still up for debate, and food pantry managers and volunteers will continue to contend with challenges through the holidays and cold months beyond. But their spirits have been buoyed by what they’ve experienced so far.

“The generosity I’m seeing is just like when the recession hit,” said Loretta Hatzel-Geraci, who runs the food pantry for North Fork Parish Outreach, located at the Church of St. Agnes in Greenport. “People really do step up to the plate when it comes to need like food and heat.”

While smiles are shrouded by masks, and hugs and handshakes are off the table, the spirit of human connection and togetherness still finds a way to survive and, in some ways, is stronger than ever, according to both pantry managers and recipients like Barbara.

“When you’re working and trying to get your kids off to college, sometimes you feel alone; you’re too busy worried about making money and paying bills,” she said. “It’s like you’re walking in the garden but don’t have time to smell the roses, or you’re drinking the coffee but don’t take the time to smell it. But in these times, I’m actually getting to know people and really seeing how wonderful this town is, and how grateful I am to be here.”