Working Together to Support Local People in Need of Food

Volunteer Howard Chwatsky puts dairy products in rows for Sag Harbor Food Pantry clients to take home. Christine Sampson photo

Every Tuesday morning, Evie Ramunno and her team of Sag Harbor Food Pantry volunteers count up the number of village residents who come through the doors of the Old Whalers’ Church, the pantry’s home base, seeking help.

Lately, they’re up to 67 separate families and single people, a number that has grown over the last few months, Ms. Ramunno, the food pantry’s director, said this week.

“That’s quite a bit compared to what it was last fall before the cold set in,” she said. “We’re prepared. We just try to keep everybody happy for a few days. We try to send them home with at least nine meals — three days of food.”

The Sag Harbor Food Pantry is just one local organization serving the hungry on the South Fork, where a network of pantries, churches, schools and social service entities work together to tackle the issue of food insecurity.

Ms. Ramunno said the number of people Sag Harbor’s food pantry helps will dwindle a bit in the spring and summer as seasonal work picks up. She said people find out about the pantry both on their own and through referrals, for instance from the school social worker if a child appears to be showing signs of hunger.

“So many families are struggling. The rents are very high. Food is expensive,” Ms. Ramunno said. “It’s tough to make it in the winter if you’re not working. We have many elderly who are also struggling. They may have their own homes, but they have taxes to pay and their Social Security and whatnot is not enough to keep them going either, so we hope that they’ll come to us for some support.”

According to Allison Puglia, vice president of programs and agency relations for Island Harvest, one of Long Island’s largest food banks, teachers are often the first to identify hungry children.

“They may see the child with a headache or a stomach ache,” Ms. Puglia said. “The child may not be paying attention because they may be waiting for lunch. Some kids squirrel away food in their backpack that hasn’t been eaten to take it home.”

In adults, she said, food insecurity often comes hand-in-hand with other financial issues. “If someone is struggling to pay their rent, more likely they aren’t getting enough food to eat,” she said. “You see people making a lot of choices with their finances and that leads to food insecurity. They may cut their medications in half. When people are making those tradeoffs in life, they’re often putting themselves at risk.”

Island Harvest works with several East End entities, including the Bridgehampton Child Care and Recreational Center, the Bridgehampton School District and Living Water Church in Wainscott, to help stock pantries and supply weekend backpacks full of food for students to take home.

In the fall of 2018, the Bridgehampton School District began participating in a federal government-funded school food program known as the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). Schools in communities with high poverty rates receive money to provide free breakfast and lunch to every student, regardless of need. At the Bridgehampton School, about 60 percent of the kids were receiving free or reduced-price lunches before the CEP took effect.

“Just the fact that we were eligible for the CEP alone tells you about the Bridgehampton community, that it’s not all real estate wealth here,” said Robert Hauser, the Bridgehampton School District superintendent. “That’s not spread evenly among the population.”

Mr. Hauser said he often sits with kids in the cafeteria during lunch.

“Students aren’t looking across from them and seeing what the other person has or what they don’t have to eat for breakfast or lunch,” he observed. “You look around and everyone’s eating the same thing, the same healthy meal. I’ve always considered that social aspect of it, where in the past we might have had kids who were sitting there with no meal across from a student who has a wonderful, home-cooked lunch. That disparity doesn’t exist now.”

He said there has even been a corresponding decrease in incidents resulting in disciplinary action.

According to Sag Harbor School Superintendent Katy Graves, one in five students in Sag Harbor experiences food insecurity, though sometimes temporarily, as in the case of a family illness or job loss. She explained children at Pierson Middle-High School have personal identification numbers attached to lunch accounts they can use on the cafeteria lines, and they can punch in that number and receive lunch, regardless of whether their parents have put any money in their accounts. Children at the elementary school, where there is no formal lunch program, can also receive lunch if they do not have any.

“Children are really sensitive and there’s a lot of shame around food. If they’re aware that the adults are aware, they won’t ask,” Ms. Graves said. “They’ll go hungry because they’re so embarrassed. Our administrators, counselors and social worker work very hard to meet their needs, and that goes across the board, whether that’s a field trip or clothing. … The word I use is ‘proactive.’ It’s kind of all hands on deck.”

She said individual teachers and staff members even help children on their own dime, without the school district asking them to assist in such a way.

“It’s really sweet that staff members, teachers, make sure that things go home in children’s backpacks,” Ms. Graves said. “They do it because they just love the kids. I hear about it anecdotally after the fact. They are really generous with families.”

Schools often refer families to entities like the Family Service League, which counsels adults and children on behavioral and mental health, addiction issues and more. Jonathan Chenkin, the Family Service League’s vice president for development, said the organization works with Island Harvest and helps people sign up for benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, once known as food stamps.

“We absolutely take any situation where a person is in need, figure out what they need, and do the legwork for them where they can get the services they need, food included,” Mr. Chenkin said. “We can refer the client to the nearest food pantry and also do the legwork to find out if they are eligible to receive other benefits. We are a network of care that’s as comprehensive as we make it for all the clients that come to us.”

Local churches are also involved in making a dent in food insecurity. Reverend Karen Ann Campbell of the Christ Episcopal Church in Sag Harbor is in the process of writing grants to boost its plans for a community kitchen where people can come for weekly dinners and possibly even a pop-up food pantry.

“There are people who are unaware of food insecurity in such a wealthy place,” she said this week. “…In certain places food is more expensive because they have a trapped audience. Knowing the statistics, from the 2010 Census, there are over 200 people living below the poverty line in Sag Harbor. I believe when the 2020 Census comes out there will be a greater need, and we can add to that the seasonal workers who are overworked in the summer and unemployed in the winter. It’s very difficult.”

Rev. Campbell said she feels religious institutions “absolutely have a mandate” to help.

“One of the last things Jesus says to his disciples is, ‘Do you love me? If you love me, feed my sheep, feed my sheep, feed my sheep,’” she said. “Jesus is concerned about people’s bodies and being whole. You can’t be very spiritual if you’re hungry.”

Throughout Sag Harbor, little wooden donation boxes can be found at shops, banks, restaurants and even village hall seeking spare change for the local pantry. While every bit helps, Ms. Ramunno said, alone it’s not enough to support the needs of the hungry. In addition to receiving donations of food, she said, the pantry spends about $1,200 per week to purchase fresh produce and other essentials for its clients.

“It’s all a help to these people who are coming to us every single week for a little bit of help,” she said. “The people here in our Sag Harbor community are really very, very generous.”

Volunteer Nahir Nieves, left, stocks produce for the clients of the Sag Harbor Food Pantry as Mary Ann Bennett, another volunteer, looks on. Christine Sampson photo