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Seniors food program stymied

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Life for the roughly 60 residents at the Michael Valente housing project, on National Boulevard in Long Beach, is never easy. Many are in their late 60s or 70s, and have been retired from low-income jobs for years. Some are infirm and must use canes or wheelchairs to get around.

Now there is a new concern — food.

For decades, Catholic Charities provided some 1,300 low-income seniors in Nassau County — including about 300 living in four housing projects in Long Beach — with a food shipment once a month, funded by New York state’s Commodity Food Supplement Program. The recipients received fresh meat, vegetables, bread and other staples. But in January, the State Health Department, which oversees the program, radically revamped its rules.

Providers such as Catholic Charities, seeking extensions of their provider contracts, would be required to provide 8,000 shipments a month. Catholic Charities said it was unable to handle such a load, and had to bow out of the program, leaving recipients with no permanent provider.

Jonah Bruno, a Health De-partment spokesman, said in an email that the state had awarded $50,000 in emergency grants to Long Island Cares and the New York Common Pantry to fill the gap while it searches for a replacement for Catholic Charities.

But the grant money will only last until the end of March.

After that, what happens to the seniors and their food supply from the state “is anyone’s guess,” said Dr. Jessica Rosati, chief program officer for Long Island Cares. She said Long Island Cares has been talking to state Health Department officials, seeking funds to purchase another vehicle and hire more staff.

But, she said, “We have an ethical responsibility to speak for people who can’t speak for themselves.” She said the matter is of extreme importance to the organization, and that Long Island Cares would take on the responsibility.

The situation outraged State Sen. Todd Kaminski, a Long Beach Democrat, who said the program “was responsible for feeding many Long Islanders in need. Now this critical program is in jeopardy and in such a wealthy country and with a $170 billion state budget, this is unacceptable.”

Residents at the Michael Valente apartments said in interviews earlier this week that they have seen no food shipments of any kind in recent months.

“Nobody delivered anything,” said Barbara Bussey, 77, who has taken a leadership role in the matter. Bussey, a retired school bus driver, is able to get around without help. But, she said, many others are not.

“There’s about 60 of us in the building,” Bussey said, seated in the lobby. “Look at her,” she said, motioning to a woman walking with a cane. “How is she going to get out and get food? So if we know people don’t have food, we share what we have with them.”

Some receive as much as $200 a month in food stamps, and others as little as $16. The residents were unable to account for the vast discrepancies.

James Reese, 75, was given $16 a month in food stamps. “I told them to go shove it,” he said.

Long Beach and philanthropic organizations were surprised when no other bidders came forward to replace Catholic Charities

In a statement, Umberto Mignardi, a spokesman for Catholic Charities, said, “We feel New York state tried to fix something that wasn’t broken with the Community Supplemental Food Program. We had been committed to serving these clients for more than 25 years, so we know the program and local needs better than anyone. It was illogical for New York state to establish an arbitrary threshold of 8,000, which essentially forces outside agencies, unfamiliar with Long Island, to step in and serve our neighbors here at home. In fact, some of the very people receiving CSFB also live in our housing programs and are served by us in many other ways, so the threshold made no sense to us.”

Mignardi said Catholic Charities “made the case repeatedly with representatives from the state, “but we didn’t make any headway.” Mignardi called the situation “a crisis,” and the result “of poor decision-making on the part of the state.”

Bruno said in his email that Catholic Charities “could have partnered with another community entity to meet this caseload request.”

Mignardi said other providers bid on a state contract, but none of them included Long Island in their bid request, he said.

At a recent hearing in Albany, Kaminsky quizzed state Health Department Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker about what the department was doing about the matter at a Senate hearing last week. He asked Zucker if the state will have a permanent contract in place by April 1. Zucker said, “We can’t commit to that,” but added that the department is working on the problem.

Meanwhile, the residents at Michael Valente do what they must to eat. They share, they scrimp and save, and wait.

“What has to be done is that food is delivered here,” Bussey said.