CAST scores grant funds to meet swelling needs

When Southold residents need assistance, they can depend on the Center for Advocacy, Support & Transformation, CAST. In return, Northforkers have proven the nonprofit can rely on them as well.

Through a recent email blast, the 59-year-old nonprofit, which serves low-income individuals and families throughout Southold Town, asked resident for assistance in raising matching funds to secure a pre-approved New York State Department of Environmental Conservation grant to purchase a pickup truck and commercial-grade freezer. Botton line: If CAST could collect $13,000 in donations, the DEC would award the organization three times that amount: $39,000. CAST Executive Director Cathy Demeroto said the community donated the funds in “a couple of days.” 

CAST needs the new equipment to serve the ballooning number of North Forkers in need. The number of meals CAST provides annually has swelled nearly tenfold since the COVID-19 pandemic walloped the globe, upsetting daily life, leaving workers furloughed or unemployed and fueling Southold’s skyrocketing real estate costs.

“We are now serving over 1,300 families or households and more than 3,500 individuals,” Ms. Demeroto said. “Pre-COVID-19, in 2019, we did about 40,000 to 45,000 meals a year. The first year of COVID, it was about 198,000. This past year, we did over 412,000. I think it was a combination of COVID, then we went into 40-year-high inflation, and an affordable housing crisis we’re dealing with right now. We still are experiencing high food and fuel costs, and we just haven’t kept pace with the high cost of living. I think many working families, as well as seniors and people with disabilities who are on fixed incomes, are struggling to make ends meet.”

The pickup truck will come in handy for, well, pickups. The nonprofit routinely collects food donated by 26 nearby farms and more than a dozen stores and restaurants, supplies Ms. Demeroto estimates would otherwise cost the organization roughly $300,000 annually. The generosity of those donors is in fact what allowed the organization to receive the DEC grant because the practice itself helps combat food waste.

“Many of the staff members and volunteers were using their personal vehicles [for donation pickups],” Ms. Demeroto said. “So [the truck] enables us to have a CAST vehicle we can use to access the fresh produce being donated by the farms as well as food rescued from various places like ShopRite or Stop and Shop, 7-Eleven, different places in the community.”

The commercial freezer, which Ms. Demeroto expects to arrive at the nonprofit’s Southold headquarters next week, will store the perishable goods CAST receives, such as meat and fish.

“We need a freezer to be able to freeze those items that are very valuable because we don’t always have the funding to purchase some of those things,” Ms. Demeroto explained. “So we want to make sure that when we receive them, we can keep them and distribute them as needed to the community.”

The freezer will help continue CAST’s efforts to serve those in need with dignity and compassion. Ms. Demeroto said the food pantry’s market-style atmosphere and prime location in the heart of Southold, where it moved from Greenport in 2021, might have also contributed to the ever-growing number of community members CAST serves.

“We have a client-choice food pantry so people come in and they can get a shopping cart or a basket and shop,” Ms. Demeroto explained. “We’re not giving pre-made bags, which we did in the old building because we just didn’t have space for people to shop. This takes away some of the stigma that comes with having to seek help at a food pantry. This respects their dietary preferences and dietary restrictions and needs, and avoids food waste because they are choosing the items that they want and need. It’s a more dignified way of serving people.”