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Pantries step up food drives in Rockville Centre

Thanksgiving need increases, while donations dwindle


While Americans across the country are wondering how to safely celebrate the upcoming holidays without inadvertently contracting or spreading the coronavirus, many families in Rockville Centre have a more pressing worry: Will there be enough to eat? The demand for food continues to increase as the pandemic drags on, and volunteers at local food pantries are concerned that these families might be forgotten.

In March, at the start of the pandemic, Sharon Sheppard, started a pop-up food pantry at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, where she is the assistant director, because, with children at home from school and many families out of work, she saw an immediate need in the community. Eight months later, that need has nearly tripled, and the center now serves 70 to 100 families each week.

The pantry is open every Friday, when people can drop off donations and clients can later pick them up. Early on, the Anti-Racism Project and the Sisterhood of Central Synagogue-Beth Emeth stepped in to help raise money and supply beef, poultry and produce to those needing help. Rena Riback, co-administrator of the Anti-Racism Project and a member of the Sisterhood, said they had been raising funds since the spring, and would purchase turkeys, hams and produce for Thanksgiving. “We’re lucky to have been able to help,” Riback said, “and have been going strong since April.”

In addition to the generosity of the community, several area businesses have been instrumental in keeping the pantry going, according to Riback. Sons of a Butcher, in Oceanside, bags up the individual meat orders for each family every week, and Fruit Tree Farm, in Baldwin, supplies the produce.

Monetary donations, however, have dwindled over the past five weeks or so, Riback said. “We have enough to last for the next two to three months, if the need doesn’t increase further,” she said, “but I’m worried people will forget about us around Christmas.”

Sheppard, 53, was diagnosed with breast cancer in July, and her twin sister, Karen Sheppard, stepped in to make sure the pantry continued. She drives from her home in Huntington Station to set up and run the food pantry each week, along with her son and a handful of volunteers. “I’m dedicated to keeping it going,” Karen said. “It really lifts my sister’s spirits to see it continue.”

Over the past few months, Karen, a senior administrator at Tax Advisors Group, has stopped working on Fridays in order to volunteer, and she and Sharon have gotten to know families in need. Not only do they know who to expect at the pantry, they also know what foods the regulars like and will go out of their way to make sure they have them.

“For some of our regular clients, we’ll use our own resources and purchase items that we know they like,” Karen said, noting, for instance, that some of the seniors take their medications with applesauce, while others prefer sardines, which aren’t a popular donation. “I really love the work. And if a guest misses a week, we’ll call to check in on them. If someone is sick or has a disability, we’ll deliver the food to them.” In addition, Karen said, about once a month they provide a takeout lunch for clients, paying for it themselves.

When the pantry started, Karen said, 50 to 60 families utilized it each week, but in the last few weeks there have been as many as 100. “I see this as a long-term project,” she said. “This is something that could go on until the economy comes back.”

The regulars range from young mothers to seniors, single fathers and working families, Karen said. Because of its pop-up, non-permanent status the pantry is not an official nonprofit and is therefore not recognized by larger organizations, and must rely on the community. “We’re very appreciative of everything the Rockville Centre community has done to help and support the vision of my sister,” she said.

What the pantry needs right now is more grocery items and monetary donations. Food can be dropped off at the MLK Center, at 150 N. Centre Ave, between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Fridays. The center cannot accept cash donations, but those interested in donating can email antiracismprojectli@gmail.com to find out how.

As Christmas approaches, Karen said, she anticipates a greater need for turkeys and hams.

“I thought the need would be going down by now, but it’s getting bigger,” she said. “More families are coming, and I’m so nervous.”

Julie Longwood, director of the Experience Pantry at the Experience Vineyard Church, said she, too, has seen an increase in the number of families in need, and donations are not coming in the way they normally do. “We had an abundance last year that lasted through December,” Longwood said. “Right now we only have 50 turkeys.”

Every Saturday morning, she said, about 150 families visit the pantry — but that number doesn’t reflect the actual need in the community. Those who receive donations sign in each week, and based on the most recent records, 370 households were served over a four-week period, amounting to about 1,100 people.

“People assume those going to the food pantry go every week,” Longwood said, “but most come once a month or every other week.”

Additionally, she said, they are finding that a lot of households have more adults at home. For the holidays, the goal is to provide families with holiday meals in addition to the weekly grocery items. Until this Friday, Longwood said, they are still collecting items for the Thanksgiving food drive, and are requesting nonperishable items as well as fresh food so recipients can make a homemade meal, including milk, cheese, eggs, potatoes, butter, apples, yams, squash, onions, peppers, cabbage, string beans, ham hocks and bacon. Items can be dropped off Tuesday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., at 251 Merrick Road.

“Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on things we’re thankful for,” Longwood said, “and it’s also an opportunity for us to look around and ask how we can provide something else for these families.”