Volunteers spent a sunny afternoon at the Long Island Muslim Society in East Meadow last Saturday, as Island Harvest and State Sen. Kevin Thomas, a Democrat from Levittown, joined the mosque in handing out boxes of food to roughly 150 local families.
Each family was given two boxes of non-perishable items and packages of meat and cheese — enough food to last four days. Also on hand were representatives of the U.S. Census Bureau to ensure that residents are counted in this year’s census.
Rahat Hossain, an LIMS board member, said that Thomas had reached out to the mosque with the idea of holding the food drive. Randi Shubin Dresner, the president and chief executive officer of Island Harvest, lives in East Meadow, and said she was thrilled to join the mosque to help their neighbors.
A number of congregants and their loved ones are immigrants, Hossain said, explaining that immigrant families in need of assistance may not always know where to find it because of factors like language barriers and the dietary restrictions of their religion. “They might just be shy about seeking resources, too,” she said. “This is what we do to help them.”
The event was one of many community food distributions that Island Harvest has offered throughout the coronavirus pandemic, which forced the food bank to “completely transform” its operations beginning March 9, Shubin Dresner said. It was receiving fewer donations than usual, and stores had less food on the shelves, but there was also a greater need for its services. “So it was very difficult at first,” she added.
So Island Harvest changed its model by using its funds to purchase food and create emergency meal boxes like the ones it delivered last Saturday. Each box has enough food to feed a family of four for four days and, so far, the food bank has assembled roughly 75,000 boxes.
Island Harvest has also called roughly 12,000 residents to help them sign up for benefits from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. The number of Nassau County residents seeking such benefits climbed steadily during the pandemic, with 3,786 applying in April — more than tripling the 1,095 who applied in April 2019.
“We’ve done distributions helping anywhere from 150 people to the 4,000 people we helped at Nassau Coliseum,” Shubin Dresner said, referring to an event the food bank hosted jointly with Nassau County on July 2. Deemed Nassau’s largest food distribution event, according to County Executive Laura Curran, it was made possible by a $1 million county investment in local food banks.
In addition to assistance from the county, Island Harvest has also received funding from federal and state programs like the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which provides low-income seniors with 32 pounds of food each month for three years.
In another USDA program, dubbed the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, Island Harvest partnered with dairy farmers who lost school districts as customers this spring, and had to dump all the milk they collected.
“We never stopped working,” Shubin Dresner said. “Up until a month ago, our staff was coming in five to seven days a week. We’re just catching our breath now.”
The number of staffers at the food bank increased to 80, in contrast to the 47 who were working before the pandemic.
Many philanthropic agencies, including Island Harvest, began the pandemic by losing volunteers who had their own personal and financial struggles, Shubin Dresner said. But Island Harvest, she said, gained volunteers, and finished July with some 1,300.
“To see people lining up for food at these distributions is always difficult,” she said. Before the start of each event, there is an orientation during which she tells the volunteers that they may see a lot of people whom they wouldn’t expect to see seeking help. They may pull up in expensive cars and look wealthy, Shubin Dresner explained, but they may have lost their jobs or had to close their businesses.
“This is a no-judgment zone,” she said. “We treat them all with the same respect, greet them the same way and thank them for coming.”
She said she hoped to continue some of the food bank’s recent efforts beyond the pandemic, hosting more community distribution events, doing more fieldwork and donating more boxes of food.