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Doing without?

Valley Stream seniors lose food assistance after program lapse

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About 50 seniors at Valley Stream’s Charles J. Monica Senior Village apartments, who qualify for food aid through a state assistance program, have stopped receiving food shipments because a Long Island vendor was unable to meet new New York State Department of Health requirements.

For the past five years, Catholic Charities, a nonprofit service agency that operates through the Diocese of Rockville Centre, provided food assistance to the residents in need at the Valley Stream facility, and 4,000 other low-income senior Long Islanders, through the state’s Commodity Supplemental Food Program.

In January, however, the state’s contract with Catholic Charities expired, and citing new Health Department standards, the nonprofit declined to renew it, leaving a service gap on the Island for the supplement program.

At least a handful of residents at Monica Village, who depended on the program for supplementary food at least once a month, said they were caught off guard when the deliveries stopped. The program provided them with about $25 worth of food a month, including cheese, peanut butter, dry milk, cereal, vegetables, fruits, pasta and tuna.

“It was like a snap of a finger when they told us the program was gone,” Cyndy Devine, 73, said. “After they told us we would no longer get food, we all just stood there in shock . . . like, ‘Wow.’”

“The program gave me a little extra, which helped out,” resident Diane Johnson, 81, said. “There are a lot of people struggling without the program.”

She added that it was sad that her fellow residents were being forced to do without. Twenty-five-year Monica Village resident Carol Diodato, 80, said she no longer eats cheese and fruit because she can’t afford it. “It is what it is,” she said. “You just adjust. I only have to feed myself, and when you’re older, you eat less. I’m managing, but I feel for the people who are poor and need the program more.”

Catholic Charities said there was a change in the state-mandated threshold for clients served under the program. The organization said that to renew its contract with the state, it would have to serve 8,000 on Long Island, nearly double what it had in previous contracts.

“We knew since Oct. 10, 2018, [that] we could not fulfill the contract as the state demanded. We know that doubling that amount . . . is simply not feasible,” said Umberto Mignardi, a Catholic Charities spokesman. “In that light, we referred our clients to local resources like pantries, SNAP application assistance, Long Island Cares, Island Harvest, parishes, etc., but we also gave everyone the contact info of the New York City CSFP providers.”

The loss of Catholic Charities as Long Island’s chief vendor for the program prompted the state to issue two emergency contracts for $50,000 each in January to fill the gap. The contracts, which expire in March, require vendors to service 2,000 senior clients respectively each month. Currently, New York Common Pantry, a New York City-based nonprofit, has agreed to take one to serve seniors in Hempstead, Freeport and Uniondale, while Long Island Cares, a Hauppauge-based nonprofit, has agreed to provide for the rest of the Island.

“The [State] Department of Health is taking all necessary steps to ensure seniors on Long Island have access to nutrition assistance,” DOH spokesman Jonah Bruno said. “We are working with our community partners in Long Island and other state agencies to seek a permanent solution that will meet the supplemental food needs of residents.”

However, residents in Monica Village and the Long Beach Housing Authority have reported that they have not yet received food aid since Long Island Cares took over deliveries. LIC disputes those reports, saying that they had reached out to the various locations that Catholic Charities had serve, but in the case of Monica Village had not heard back.

“There were approximately 39 sites that were previously serviced by Catholic Charities. We have made contact with all sites we were given since November, and have been scheduling and serving three days per week,” Jessica Rosati, a LIC spokeswoman said. “There are three communities Freeport, Uniondale and Hempstead that have been awarded to New York Common Pantry of the Bronx, who currently operates CSFP. I am not sure if those sites have begun as of yet.”

Additionally, Paule Pachter, chief executive officer of Long Island Cares, said his organization was waiting to hear back from a number of facilities on the Island including Valley Stream’s.

Lucille Moran, executive director of Monica Village, said that LIC had called the facility roughly a month ago asking whether there was anyone at the facility in dire need of assistance, to which she replied no.

“If enough tenants come to me with a need, I will reach out,” she said. “So far no one has reached out.”

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky questioned state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker whether he could guarantee the program’s future during a New York State Senate joint budget hearing. “Right now on Long Island there’s a gap in a program that is incredibly important to many people,” Kaminsky told Zucker at the meeting. “Can I tell seniors that by April 1 of this year there will be the same supplemental food that they’ve been relying on?”

“I don’t want to commit to that particular contract or plan, but we will work to make sure that [the seniors’] needs are met. This is one of the issues that I have asked the department to work heavily on,” Zucker replied, citing his department’s emergency contracts, which expire at the start of April.

According to Health Department officials, the updated contract requirements for the supplemental food program were based on previous applications from vendors, consolidation of caseloads and changing requirements for federal funding.

The department, Mignardi speculated, “might have been seeking financial efficiencies by trying to consolidate services with larger agencies that maintained more clients.”

Bruno suggested that to meet requirements, Catholic Charities could have partnered with another agency to meet the updated contract requirements. “The RFA allowed for subcontracting,” he said. “Catholic Charities could have partnered with another community entity to meet this caseload request.”

Pachter said Long Island Cares is requesting a $160,000 extension to finish out the year, and to continue to meet the program’s needs.