The coronavirus changed many aspects of life on Long Island, but it also motivated the community to come together and help those dealing with hunger, financial burdens, and isolation as a result of the pandemic.
Seeing a growing need to help others struggling in her own community, Sharon Sheppard, the assistant director of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Rockville Centre, created a pantry to help provide food to any community members struggling to secure their next meal.
When the pandemic first struck, several businesses and industries were hit harder than others. The shutdown left some unpaid and out of work and with an air of uncertainty about what the future holds.
“I decided to start the pantry in March 2020, when the pandemic started,” Sheppard said. “It was in my heart and passion to help those in need during a time when nobody knew what was going on or going to happen.”
Rena Riback and Judy Rattner, co-founders of the Anti-Racism Project, immediately stepped up to help Sheppard, volunteering their time to organize the pantry and to assist those who could not afford their next meal.
“We started with 22 families, and we are now at about 115,” Riback said. “The community was great. When it started, the donations were pouring in. Restaurants were helping. It was a real community effort.”
Food insecurity impacts nearly 221,000 people on Long Island, according to Long Island Cares, a nonprofit organization and food bank dedicated to serving the hungry and food-insecure population.
Sharon’s Pantry, named for its founder, relies on monetary and food-based donations from the community to serve families in need. All of the money raised is used to help purchase meat, produce and other items each week.
Sheppard is still instrumental in running the pantry, but when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2020, she was forced to reduce her role and brought in her sister, Karen Mobley, and her son, De’Juan Bacchas, to help out. Both Mobley and Bacchas have remained key components in keeping the pantry a huge success.
“Three years later, if you ask me would I do it all over again, I would say absolutely,” Sheppard said.
Rockville Centre Deputy Mayor Kathy Baxley said that during the past three years, Sharon’s Pantry has become a huge part of the community, with so many more people who are now helping out with food drives, donations and fundraising efforts.
“It’s amazing how it has affected all of our village in a positive way,” Baxley said.
However, due to the high demand for certain food items, the facility has struggled to stock enough to meet everyone’s needs.
Food donations are collected through drives organized by different community organizations, including the National Council of Jewish Women, Rockville Centre Boy Scout Troop 40, Temple B’Nai Sholom-Beth David, Sons of a Butcher in Oceanside, and the Sisterhood of Central Synagogue Beth Emeth, which provides $300 worth of cereal each month.
Students in the Rockville Centre School District and the St. Regis Catholic School in New York City also pitch in by collecting food from the community and donating it to the MLK Center on Friday morning.
“We’ve managed the pandemic at this point, yet the need is still there,” Riback said. “Food prices have skyrocketed and wages have not.”
Inflation and the increased cost of food have added to the problem. Sharon’s Pantry may not always have enough to meet the demand, but it’s always there to help, by providing gift cards to families when supplies run out. In order to help keep up with the growing demand, the pantry has also signed up to work with Island Harvest Food Bank, a leading hunger-relief organization focused on ending hunger and reducing food waste on Long Island.
“We never know what we’re going to get from them,” Riback said. “We also have regular donors, who not only bring food every week, but who help provide us with money.”
Vineyard Church food pantry recently closed, which also contributed to the increased demand for Sharon’s Pantry.
“I think the community we’re serving is still struggling,” Riback said.
“The people who had been making donations in the beginning are also struggling, so the donations have lessened.”
To help encourage the community to pitch in, the pantry posts some of the needed items on social media every Monday morning.
Anyone interested in donating food can drop it off at the MLK Center, at 150 N. Centre Ave., on Friday mornings between 8:30 and 11 a.m. Monetary donations can be made through the Anti-Racism Project, 30 Seaman Ave. in Rockville Centre or the Sisterhood of Central Synagogue Beth Emeth, 430 DeMott Ave., in Rockville Centre, or electronically via Zelle at firstname.lastname@example.org.