The cupboards inside the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, on Centre Avenue in Rockville Centre, were stocked with canned goods and other food last Friday in preparation for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Within three weeks, however, all of the boxes will be gone and the shelves will once again be bare, according to Rena Ribeck, one of the organizers of the pantry and a co-founder of the nonprofit Anti-Racism Project.
“Today is unusual because today you’re seeing people donating for Thanksgiving,” Ribeck said. “There’s that spirit of giving, so people will dig a little deeper. But other months, it’s a struggle.”
Food insecurity impacts roughly 228,000 people on Long Island, according to Long Island Cares, a nonprofit organization and food bank dedicated to serving the hungry and food-insecure population. They include the unemployed, the homeless, the working poor, and veterans — children, adults, seniors, and families who have a hard time securing their next meal.
Dozens of people who faced the prospect of not having enough to eat on Thanksgiving gathered at the MLK Center early to secure a spot in line for the pantry. The tables inside were filled with a wide variety of cereal, pasta, bread, milk and fresh produce. There were also plenty of turkeys and chickens, provided by Island Harvest, the largest hunger-relief organization on Long Island.
Sharon’s MLK Pantry was created in April 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic worsened. Seeing the growing need in the community, Ribeck and the other co-founder of the Anti-Racism Project, Judy Rattner, a former editor of the Herald, got together with Sharon Sheppard, the associate director of the MLK Center, to try to do something about the growing trend.
“What started with 22 families now varies between 80 and 100,” Ribeck said. “There have been some incredible people that have been helping out.”
Sheppard was instrumental in planning and preparing the pantry, which she considers one of her many passion projects. But in July 2020, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and was forced to reduce her role. To help with the pantry, which now bears her name, she enlisted her sister, Karen Mobley, to keep her vision alive.
“You could be a couple and still be struggling,” Mobley said. “Rents are sky-high. Everything is doubling. Butter is $7. Whatever you do to add to your cabinet or cupboard can be a blessing.”
The pantry primarily serves needy families and Long Islanders who are working but have limited incomes, but it is open to anyone. Most families pick up food in person, but in the past, volunteers have made deliveries to elderly residents.
“Before we were doing the community and seniors, but due to the economy, even people that are working can’t afford to eat,” Sheppard said. “So it’s open for everybody.”
What sets Sharon’s Pantry apart from others is that it runs solely on donations of money and food, the latter mostly collected at food drives. All of the money that is raised is used to buy meat, produce, and other items every week.
Food donations often come from 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. Produce is provided at cost by Fruit Tree Farms.
“We’re very thankful for all of the donors,” Rattner said.
Due to increasing demand, however, the facility often struggles to stock enough food. The cost of meat typically runs about $500 to $1,000 per week, Ribeck said, and produce can cost $150 to $250 per week. Volunteers put together a list of needed items each week, which they share on social media with the hope of soliciting donations.
This month, thanks to the help of Island Harvest, they were able to stock the pantry with 65 turkeys and 30 chickens, enough to provide a proper Thanksgiving meal for everyone who showed up. “This week we were really lucky,” Ribeck said last Friday. “Combined with what we bought . . . we have enough for everybody.”
But there is always a need for more. 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 sent by check to the Anti-Racism Project, at 30 Seaman Ave. in Rockville Centre, or electronically via Zelle at firstname.lastname@example.org.