Lillian Woudsma


The Director of the Sag Harbor Food Pantry, a not-for-profit dedicated to feeding those in the village in need of a helping hand, who talks about the rising number of families she sees on a weekly basis in the wake of the economic downturn and how the Sag Harbor community has stepped up its donations ensuring 75 families will have a Thanksgiving feast to remember.

The Sag Harbor Food Pantry was facing a slight crisis, as some of the larger blocks of Thanksgiving donations dried up this year. Was the pantry’s call for help heard this Thanksgiving season?

I am telling you this community has been so good to us. It has really been fabulous. When we found out King Kullen was not giving out the coupons [for a free turkey with a $50 purchase], everyone became very worried. But we have had enough donations to see us through. I have to tell you, there is a lot of energy sustaining this food pantry. I have a lot of worker bees all over the place. I made a plea on WLNG, I wrote a letter to Bryan [Boyhan, editor and publisher of The Sag Harbor Express], I went on WLIU and talked to anyone who would listen, and you know what, we had 60 turkeys donated.

It really has been a community effort. The Ross School wanted to know what they could do, and decided to hold a food drive. East Hampton Elementary students offered us canned goods, and then I suggested they encourage the kids take a look at our local farmstands. My whole premise, and obviously we take everything that is offered to us and are very grateful, is to try and serve fresh foods and vegetables rather than the canned goods. So thanks to those students we have a whole pantry filled with cauliflower, brussel sprouts, potatoes – you name it. I have had people calling all weekend long, asking if they can donate money, or donate a turkey, which is great because if we collect more than we need we can use it at Christmas, which is just around the corner. The [Saint Andrew’s Church] youth group made 65 pies for us this year, which we will be giving out [on Tuesday, November 25]. I still have to put my vegetable order in with Schmidt’s in Southampton. They are very generous. So we are in good shape for Thanksgiving.

What will families’ be treated to this year for their Thanksgiving feast?

They will be bringing home a whole turkey or chicken, or a whole cooked turkey breast for those with very small families, some who don’t have an oven. We will also be giving out sweet potatoes, regular potatoes, stuffing, broccoli, green beans, assorted breads – all donated by the community – and hopefully some mixed nuts, as well as tangerines, oranges, apples, grapes, bananas and cider. That is besides the usual milk and eggs and cheese that we provide.

If I had the resources, for the holidays, I would buy each one a bottle of wine. Next year, maybe I will reach out to some of the local vineyards.

Have you seen an increase in need since the economic downturn took effect? Are there more people reaching out to the food pantry as a resource?

Oh my God. It has been unbelievable. We are now serving up to 75 families a week, and signing up a lot of new faces. We are also seeing a lot of older people who have lived in Sag Harbor for generations, and their children, come in to see us. It’s sad, but we try and make them feel good. We really feel like a family here. We help them, they help and thanks us in their way. We serve a lot of very nice people.

Normally, around this time of year we are serving 45 to 50 families – so 75 is a very big jump.

Do you expect the upward trend in food pantry recipients will continue to increase throughout this year?

I think it is going to get worse, which is why I personally try and work very hard to keep bringing money in so we can keep this program going, and I don’t have to resort to handing out canned goods like a lot of other organizations have to. We take every single donation we get, but I don’t count on them. I have to be prepared, which is why we have different programs throughout the year.

We are getting ready to start our Christmas Giving Tree program, which should start right after Thanksgiving. I love Thanksgiving. It is one of the only American holidays with a true focus on family and food – it’s all about the harvest. So I like to give it its full due. We will get those Christmas Giving Trees out soon enough.

How long have you been with the food pantry as a director?

Four years this month I took over, and I can barely believe it. Now we have a board of directors, offices, we are a registered not-for-profit, we have a treasurer who likes to throw a fit if I want to buy something fancy for the pantry. It’s great.

What kind of fresh foods will you look to serve during the Christmas season?

What we will do this year is fresh hams, large chickens if people want them and some kind of roast. That is at least what we would like to do. And then we will offer chestnuts, potatoes, a variety of fresh veggies and hopefully some holiday cakes. And then of course we have Santa, who will visit with all our children and give them a toy. We’ll take a picture and Phil [Bucking] at The Sag Harbor Garden Center is wonderful – he helps us out by giving us little poinsettias for each family. We really have such a caring community – we’re lucky. 

You have been able to sustain a healthy group of volunteers. What’s the secret?

It’s a happy place. We have everything from Mozart to rock and roll playing, form Frank Sinatra to mariachi bands. The Ross School donates some wonderful soups to us regularly, and I have enough volunteers where they set up a whole station so people can come in for a little soup, a little sandwich. We are a very congenial group of people. We socialize together, we work together and we have a great energy about us. It’s a well oiled machine and no one steps on each other’s toes.

When I started we have two or three people volunteering and now we have 25. I am not exaggerating when I say we have a beautiful thing going on. We get along socially and we all know we are doing a good thing.