North Fork food banks are straining to help the needy

Record breaking unemployment claims, thousands of laid off employees and pleas to stay home amidst a global pandemic are burdening local food banks as they try to keep up with demand.

At the Church of the Harvest food pantry on Raynor Avenue in Riverhead, Gwen Mack typically supplies 20 families with food. In March, as the coronavirus spread, she said they’ve received pleas from at least 52 additional families for help. 

But Ms. Mack and other local food bank organizers say it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to find supplies to stock their pantries with things like cereal, canned goods and paper goods.

“You name it, we need it,” Ms. Mack said Thursday.

Initially, she had been trying to provide families in need with other essentials: a roll of toilet paper, paper towels and wipes. “Now, we don’t have any,” she said, adding that those items have been out of stock at local stores. “I can’t understand why people are hoarding it.”

Riverhead Councilwoman Catherine Kent described the situation as a “double whammy,” since the pandemic has left many people out of work and volunteers are also becoming scarce as they try to practice social distancing.

“We’re seeing a lot more people coming to the pantries than have ever come before,” she said.

It’s an islandwide and even nationwide issue, according to Don Miller, a spokesperson for the Island Harvest food bank.

A record-breaking 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment claims last week and in New York, 369,025 claims were filed last week, which represents an increase of 2,674% compared to last year’s data, according to the state Department of Labor.

Island Harvest has been ramping up efforts to provide food and services to vulnerable populations: the elderly, homebound veterans and school-aged children who may rely on their schools to eat, in addition to helping stock community food banks.

While the food bank, which serves over 300,000 Long Islanders, usually relies on donations, Mr. Miller said they’ve shifted their model and have spent upwards of $500,000 to purchase supplies directly.

“People are clamoring for food,” he said. “Supermarkets, who have been donors before, just don’t have the excess product to donate.”

As an emergency response organization, Mr. Miller said Island Harvest has stepped up to aid Long Islanders after hurricanes or fires and were prepared to provide aid during the COVID-19 outbreak. “We have stock in our Hauppauge and Calverton warehouses,” he said. 

During other emergencies — floods down south, hurricane devastation in Puerto Rico — providers have been able to share resources regionally via Feeding America, a national hunger relief organization.

“Usually when disaster strikes in a particular area, another area can  step up and provide surplus,” Mr. Miller said. “This crisis is different, because everyone is in the same situation.”

Riverhead Town councilman Frank Beyrodt is also a board member at Island Harvest. He said food banks are all “really being pressed,” during the coronavirus crisis. “The shortage of supplies and food is well documented, but that’s the state of things right now,” he said. “It’s a whole new world we’re living in right now.”

Mr. Beyrodt, along with the Riverhead Town Board, is working with Island Harvest to organize a drive-up emergency relief distribution at Stotzky Park in Riverhead. Mr. Beyrodt said that while the logistics and details are being worked out, they’re aiming for a date next week. 

“We’re getting out into the community as more of a direct provider,” Mr. Miller said of the initiative, which is taking place in communities across Long Island to “help get the food where it’s needed the most.”

In addition to providing direct connections to food and supplies, Mr. Miller said the organization is helping to assist Long Islanders apply for SNAP benefits, which can be done online

Despite having underlying health issues, Ms. Mack, 70, said she’s continuing to run the food pantry using social distancing measures that include contactless food pick ups to stay safe.

She’s also working with volunteers from the nondenominational church to arrange for delivery for homebound seniors in the community. “I feel sorry for people that can’t get out,” she said. “You’ve got to call your neighbors and check on them.”

There is a GoFundMe page set up to help the Church of the Harvest Food Pantry through the crisis.