Community

Making a Difference: As reopening continues, demand remains high at food pantries

On Monday morning, the staff at RISE Main Street Market Food Pantry in Riverhead received a familiar call. A family in Riverhead — two adults, two small children and an infant — needed food. They were unable to leave their home due to a positive COVID-19 case. They couldn’t afford food delivery services and did not have anyone who could bring them food.

RISE Life Services, formerly known as Aid to the Developmentally Disabled, has partnered with the Suffolk County Department of Health and its contact tracing program underway to help limit the spread of COVID-19. When the Health Department identifies someone who must quarantine and cannot get their own food, they turn to local food pantry partners such as RISE in Riverhead and Community Action Southold Town to assist.

JoAnn Vitale oversees the RISE pantry. She said after receiving that notice from the DOH Monday, the pantry delivered as much food as possible to the Riverhead family. But she knew there would still be many more people in need come Wednesday morning, when a line begins to form a few hours before the food pantry opens at its downtown location. There’s only so much food to go around.

As Long Island enters its second week of Phase 4 of the NY Forward recovery plan, signs of life returning to a new normal are everywhere. Diners have returned to restaurants. The weekend traffic on the North Fork has slowed to an all-too-familiar crawl.

Yet for many, whether for those still unemployed, others playing catch-up on overdue bills or those who simply struggled financially before the pandemic, food insecurity remains a major problem. More than four months into the pandemic, the demand on local food pantries has yet to subside.

Ms. Vitale said securing enough food to hand out to all those seeking help remains an issue. While the pantry is open until 2 p.m. on Wednesday, the supply typically runs out by 12:30 or 1 p.m., she said.

“Not everyone is able to go back to work,” Ms. Vitale said, pointing to senior citizens in particular who are often on fixed incomes and rely on Social Security benefits.

Cathy Demeroto, executive director of CAST, said before COVID-19, the organization served 4,961 meals in February. That tripled in March to 12,150, then increased to 19,747 in April. May was the highest month at 23,418 and while June dipped slightly, it was still a huge number at 21,395. She expects the July number to be on a similar scale.

“We’re seeing several people now are really overdue on other bills — rent, electric or some medical bills, so they’re coming in to try and catch up,” she said. “Many of our clients are the lower wage clients working in the different service industries on the North Fork and they live paycheck to paycheck. They rely on eight to nine months of wages to get them through the year.”

CAST has met the challenge thanks to donations and volunteers. A GoFundMe started in March by former Greenport Mayor Dave Kapell raised more than $100,000 for the organization. Ms. Demeroto said she hired two food pantry assistants, increased the food pantry manager’s hours, hired a new client support specialist and relied on about 80 volunteers. Food purchasing expenses surged from about $1,200 a week to $8,000.

“The community really stepped up and helped, but we are seeing a significant decrease in our volunteers in the last several weeks,” she said.

Part of that is people returning to jobs who have less time to volunteer, she said.

Donations have also slowed down. The GoFundMe remains active with a goal of $110,000. Eight donations have been submitted in the last 28 days, including one anonymous gift of $1,000. The bulk of the donations came within the first five weeks.

Mr. Kapell said in April that Brent Pelton, the owner of American Beech in Greenport Village, had reached out to Mr. Kapell about the situation in Greenport when the pandemic began and they decided to team up and create a GoFundMe.

“It tells you the depth of goodwill and support that’s out there in the community to address a problem like this,” Mr. Kapell said. “I’m deeply impressed by the generosity of the people who responded to that GoFundMe page.”

The RISE pantry has relied on grant money and assistance of local farms like Andrews Family Farm in Wading River where they can purchase fresh produce at a reduced cost.

Items most in demand, Ms. Vitale said are protein: meats, milk, eggs. Cereals and canned goods are also good. And personal care items are also something people struggle to purchase, especially since that can’t be bought through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Ms. Vitale said anyone wishing to donate can contact her directly at 631-727-6220, ext. 224. While the pantry is formally open on Wednesday, Ms. Vitale said she tries to accommodate anyone who stops by on other days of the week.

“We are trying our hardest to get as much food as possible,” she said.

Ms. Demeroto described the people she sees each day as “both humble and grateful.”

Ms. Demeroto said they’ve set up the pantry to maintain social distancing so they can safely pass food between staff and clients. They’ve also handed out over 1,000 masks to clients. Staff members at food pantries in many ways are unsung heroes on the frontline of the pandemic. Ms. Demeroto said she became sick and developed pneumonia early on in the pandemic, back before the mandatory face covering guidelines were implemented. She was able to recover at home, but said it “was brutal.”

Looking ahead, it’s tough to predict what the pandemic landscape will look like in the coming months as the possibility of a surge in fall looms. But the demand on food pantries doesn’t appear to be slowing down.

“It’s going to be a long time before people are back on their feet, even if they go back to work,” Ms. Vitale said.