During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, local officials banded with regional and village food organizations in a concerted effort to curb hunger in Valley Stream. At that time, the need felt obvious and immediate.
Regional food bank Long Island Cares, working with the office of Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages, propped up a temporary emergency food distribution center at Valley Stream Presbyterian Church, welcoming hundreds of residents in need.
And when local pantries like the Saint Vincent de Paul food pantry program at Holy Name of Mary Church saw a jump in the number of vulnerable families requesting food assistance, they mobilized their volunteers.
But three years later, when asked whether pantries are breathing easier with the troubles of the pandemic largely behind them, food relief coordinators flatly say no. If anything, demand has intensified.
“The food is flying off the shelves,” said Sister Margie Kelly, director of the pantry outreach program at Holy Name of Mary Church.
According to hunger relief advocates, families are feeling the sting of rising food costs and inflation, fueling the surging demand at local and regional food pantries.
It’s hard for a middle-income family of four, making anywhere from $50,000 to $70,000, to get by when their wallets are strained to the limits with price jumps in basic living expenses — coupled with Long Island’s built-in high cost of living — noted Paule Patcher, chief executive officer of Long Island Cares.
“As we closed out last year, the number of first-time visitors needing food at one of our emergency food pantry locations is up by more than 50 percent,” said Patcher. “That’s 42,000 new people across Long Island.”
While demand swells, the available options to seek out federal and state food assistance have narrowed, noted Jessica Rosati, the regional food bank’s program coordinator. Gone is the federally backed pandemic-era universal free lunch program, and the emergency Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits will roll back by the end of the month.
The result? More and more families, facing the painful reality of teetering between paying a mortgage or purchasing a week’s worth of grocery items, are turning to local and regional pantries to secure a monthly box or bag of free food.
In turn, food pantries and distribution sites are feeling the pressure to keep their pantry shelves stocked. Nassau County Legislator Bill Gaylor earlier this month called on residents and local organizations to help the Saint Vincent de Paul food pantry replenish its supplies with a two-week-long food drive collection, which kicked off Feb. 6.
“Many food pantries have empty shelves, and this food drive is meant to help fill those shelves and help keep food on the table for families in need facing the constant threat of food insecurity,” said Gaylor.
The drive takes place on weekdays through Feb. 17 at Valley Stream Village Hall courtesy of the Village. The building will be open Mondays through Fridays between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. All nonperishable foods and paper products are accepted.
The Saint Vincent de Paul food pantry program depends on the contributions of the community’s patchwork of charity groups and schools to weather the strain. That is, until more robust help arrives in the form of Valley Stream’s own onsite emergency food pantry facility run by the Freeport-based regional food bank on Rockaway Avenue.
Though the project is more than two months behind schedule, Patcher is aiming to have the facility up and running by March. But much still depends on how fast major renovations will be completed and the facility cleared for use.
“There’s a lot of renovations needed to bring the building up to code,” Patcher said. “But we’ve done satellite locations eight times and we know what to expect.”
“We won’t open until it’s safe and we can serve people efficiently in a place where they feel welcome and comfortable,” Rosati said. “We pride ourselves on our satellite locations, and the site is going to be dynamic when it opens. We’ll need a little more time, but the end result will be worth it.”
“The new facility on Rockaway will be a blessing for residents,” said Gaylor. “We need all the help we can get.”
Those wishing to donate or volunteer at Long Island Cares may visit its website at Licares.org.
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