Long Island Cares has been a staple in the battle against hunger for over 40 years. The organization has several locations across Long Island, including Freeport, Huntington Station, Lindenhurst, Hampton Bays, and Bethpage. I recently had the opportunity to speak with several members of LI Cares, who revealed some shocking statistics that have emerged as the Bethpage branch wrapped up its 2022 evaluations.
According to Media Relations Specialist Peter Crescenti, the branch – formally named The Harry Chapin Food Bank Essential Market – saw a dramatic uptick in both visitors and meals distributed last year compared to 2021. “This past year, compared to 2021, we saw a 155% increase in visitors looking for food, and a 155% increase in the number of meals distributed,” he reports. “The numbers themselves are staggering and an indicator of how a sizeable portion of the area’s population need help finding enough food to eat.”
The Bethpage market operates uniquely as a client choice pantry. According to Marc Leonelli, coordinator of the location, “We are set up like a little quaint shopping market. Clients can come in and our volunteers walk them around to shop through the items we have available on the shelves.” This client-oriented model allows for both a more streamlined, accessible experience, as well as providing a less stigmatized atmosphere for visitors.
The location was not founded with this grocery store layout in mind. Program Vice President Jessica Rosati explains, “We acquired the space initially to use as a food box packing center to supply food boxes to our 18 pop up food distribution centers that operated throughout Nassau County during the height of the pandemic. The need became so great that we decided to transition this location into our 5th satellite location that would provide a supported shopping experience safely and efficiently in a world post-pandemic.”
Items offered at this location consist mostly of shelf-stable, nonperishable items, as well as household items, personal care, and even pet food. The most popularly requested and purchased items include fresh produce, such as meat and milk. The pantry services roughly 50 visitors every day. The most common age group, according to Rosati, is seniors. According to Leonelli, the top four racial demographics of visitors are as follows: Caucasian (38.35%), Hispanic / Latino / Spanish (35.97%), African American (15.06%), and Asian (2.06%). Other demographics include American Indian, Middle Eastern, and multi racial.
Last year, The Harry Chapin Food Bank Essential Market distributed 175,878 meals, versus 68,940 in 2021. The food bank also serviced 19,496 people, versus 7,644 in 2021. These drastic increases do not even indicate the utmost severity of hunger on the island. Crescenti notes that the Bethpage location was only their third busiest in 2022, following Freeport – “by far our busiest pantry” – and Lindenhurst. Cumulatively, their locations served more than one million meals.
There are a number of suspected causes for an increase in needed support, but Crescenti points to inflation, high gas prices and astronomical grocery prices as key contributing factors. These are circumstances which have affected many Long Islanders, and have certainly left struggling communities even more downtrodden. And things do not seem to be looking up. The vice president of LI Cares, who supervises the various pantries, foresees the numbers at least matching last year’s, if not exceeding them.
So, what can be done to help slow this progression of hunger on Long Island? According to Rosati and Leonelli, the most immediate way to provide support is to donate food, money, even your time. “Especially with inflation on the rise and the demand for food climbing even faster, we always encourage the community to do food drives or even donate directly,” says Leonelli. Food donations are always accepted at the Bethpage site, and community action is welcomed and encouraged. “Whatever part our community can play in helping those in need helps us fight the ever-growing battle of food insecurity on Long Island.” Rosati seconds this, adding, “We are always in need of good support, and we rely heavily on volunteers to facilitate our programs.”
Rosati also mentioned that impending changes to the SNAP program – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides nutrition benefits to supplement the food budget of needy families so they can purchase healthy food and move towards self-sufficiency – means that the need to support the emergency food network is more imperative now than ever. “Your support matters!” she promises readers. Leonelli added that this current period of inflation is a scenario not unfamiliar to many of us and is survivable through teamwork and community humanitarianism. “Through the help of our wonderful staff and the amazing support from our local communities, we will overcome this newest challenge we face and come out stronger on the other side.”
About Long Island Cares:
Long Island Cares has been on a mission to feed Long Island’s food insecure and stamp out the root causes of hunger since their founding by the late Harry Chapin in 1980. To help achieve their goals, they are guided by seven principles: Leadership, Innovation, Collaboration, Accountability, Respect, Empowerment, and Stewardship. They provide nutritional food and support services for a network of more than 374 community-based member agencies, including food pantries, soup kitchens, emergency shelters, child care programs, disability organizations, veterans’ services programs and more. The work is not done, and Long Island Cares is committed to serving Long Island as long as the need is great. Visit www.licares.org/ for more information on their facilities or to learn how to get involved today!
– Additional information provided by the Long Island Cares website