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Feeding the hungry as Covid-19 cases rise

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In a time of uncertainty, the People Pantry, owned and operated by the non-for-profit organization People Loving People, is something that Long Islanders living near and far from Oyster Bay can count on.

Every “Senior” Wednesday and “Community” Friday, volunteers gather at People Loving People, adjacent from Theodore Roosevelt Park, to hand out food donated by local businesses and grocery chains like Trader Joes. In an effort to keep clients’ safe, instead of going into the building to shop for their groceries, which was done before the coronavirus pandemic, they can simply fill out a form and a volunteer will bag their groceries inside for them.

On Dec. 30, the volunteers served both the seniors and the rest of the community since Friday was New Year’s Day. The sky was a gloomy gray and it was cold when about one to two clients at a time waited for the volunteers to bag the groceries they had ordered. As they waited, many clients made conversation with volunteers collecting grocery orders as they picked up the ice cream, prepared meals and other goods left on the tables out front. A lot of the volunteers and clients know each other by name because they often see each other once a week.

“I come here weekly,” a client who asked for anonymity said, adding that the past year has been a difficult one. “I get some stuff that kind of adds to what I have.”

On Dec. 30, the People’s Pantry served 110 people or families.

Volunteers say that the number of clients coming to pick up food increased when the pandemic hit, steadily decreasing over the summer. Then, as Covid cases began to rise again, so did the number of clients in need of groceries.

“It seems like many things are starting to get bad for some people,” said Donna Galgano, who started the pantry with her sister Valarie Monroy and Gina Kang. “We’ve seen families who have come back now after a while.”

Galgano said she believes it was not a coincidence that the pantry started only months before the pandemic would upend the lives of Long Island families. “Food is essential,” she said. “It started at the right time. I’m glad we did it. I love doing it.”

Michelle Santibanez, a 27-year-old volunteer, said she started coming down to the pantry, which is down the block from her home, three or four months ago to help. While helping others, she said, People Loving People has been there for her as well.

“My mom passed away and they helped me out,” Santibanez said. “Coming here is really nice and the people here are great.”

This pantry is a relief for many people, Santibanez said. Some people even come to the pantry crying and looking for assistance. “We’re open arms,” she said. “We open the doors for everybody.”

Also a new volunteer, William Daley said it’s been a fulfilling experience helping the community at the pantry. “I help set up,” he said. “We get a couple bins full of stuff and people bring in donations. We stock the shelves and it feels really good to give back and help out.”

Daley said he was inspired to give back to the community when a colleague mentioned that the People’s Pantry was looking for some help with the Thanksgiving food distribution.

“We had palettes and palettes of food,” he said. “So many people are going through hard times, scary times. It’s good to be something they can rely upon and not just for the food, but for the senior citizens who can have a person that they are able to see.”

While it’s been a challenging year, Galgano said she’s content in knowing she, along with the large group of volunteers, did the right thing by her community. Whenever organizers felt as though they would need to start fundraising in order to continue their efforts, money would pour in from donors they didn’t even know.

“We got so many texts for New Years,” Galgano said. “Thanking us and telling us that during a really hard time, at least this is something they could rely upon, that’s a constant and that’s not uncertain.”

Along with her work at the People’s Pantry, Galgano also works as a nurse practitioner. In the near future, she said she is hoping to open a free health clinic for the community that people could come to if they have a cold, need basic blood work or screenings and referrals for specialists. She has experience running health clinics, because Galgano has operated clinics before during mission trips.

Laura Lane contributed to this story.