For nearly 14 years, Paule Pachter has been the CEO of Long Island Cares, which operates the Harry Chapin Food Bank. Over the past year, as hunger and food insecurity increased on Long Island, Long Island Cares expanded. We talked with Pachter about this persistent problem, the organization Harry Chapin founded just a year before his death, and what’s being done to help those in need, especially during the holiday season.
How many people need food banks on Long Island and is that number increasing or decreasing?
It’s 287,000. That represents a 6% decrease in the number of people when you compare it to 2020. The numbers for 2020 were skewed because of Covid. We were assisting about 480,000 people due to Covid.
How did you do that?
We did it and Island Harvest did it. Other hunger-assistance organizations did it. We were fortunate to have the resources. If you look back at 2020, people lined up in parking lots to pick up emergency food. Covid caught people off guard. Nobody thought they would go to a supermarket and find empty shelves or be laid off or furloughed. From March of 2020 through the end of the year, in some places we looked at a 70% increase in the number of people.
Who are Long Island’s hungry and food insecure?
People have an image of what someone struggling with hunger looks like. The stereotypical image is a poor person, a person from a minority community, someone who doesn’t work because they “don’t want to work” or can’t due to health or a disability. You have to look at who the people are.
And who are the people in need?
Sixty % of the people utilizing the emergency food network are people we might expect to have issues with food insecurity. They may be permanently unable to work due to health or socioeconomic issues. They are eligible for government entitlement programs such as SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program], public assistance. These are people who don’t own homes. They may live with two or three other people.
Who are the other 40%?
They are Long Islanders, most who are working, but not earning enough salary to lift them out of poverty. These are people who may make 10, 12, even 15 dollars an hour. Because of the cost of living in our region, the astronomical cost for rent, utilities, gas for your car, car insurance, 40% of people using our food network are Long Island’s working poor. They cannot lift themselves out of the cycle of poverty.
What do you mean by the “cycle?”
The cycle of poverty on Long Island is different from in most places in the United States. Four or five years ago, the Long Island Association (LIA) did a survey that found for a family of four to live on Long Island in some comfort, they have to earn $94,000. A family of four earning $54,000 a year is eligible or government entitlements on Long Island, because they’re classified as poor. The group making more than $54,000, earning $60K, $70K for a family of four, those people are coming to the food pantries.
How do you distribute the food and is that changing?
For Long Island Cares, it’s changing. Historically, food banks provided the bulk of the food that we secure, whether privately, through donations or contracts, to organizations, pantries and soup kitchens. That’s the focus of our two government contracts. In 2009, Long Island Cares did a study of agencies. We do it every three years. We found the majority of organizations we support couldn’t or wouldn’t expand. We started to open our own pantries to increase distribution of food to those who need it the most. If you look at Long Island Cares today, we have eight locations. We distribute food to the community through six. We have large operations in Freeport, Lindenhurst, Huntington Station, Hampton Bays, and our newest location in Bethpage.
Why and when did you add the latest location?
Bethpage opened last week. During the height of Covid, we received $2.5 million from the Town of Hempstead to open 18 temporary pop-up distribution centers throughout Hempstead. One of the pop-up distribution centers was in Bethpage. We knew there were needs in Hicksville, Levittown, Wantagh. We decided after the temporary pop-ups were going to be closing down, we would like to stay in Bethpage.
Is Bethpage different from other locations?
Each satellite location is different. Bethpage is known as The Harry Chapin Food Bank Essential Market, a boutique model supermarket. You walk in, pick food. We’ll have a nutritionist come in once a week and do cooking demonstrations. The food is free.
How has Covid complicated distributing food?
Delivering to a senior housing program now requires us to deliver the food to the door to the apartment. There’s no longer a community room where people can come in and pick up. We do more home deliveries. That’s been a game changer. We also have mobile food delivery to disabled veterans. And we do deliveries to homeless enclaves. We deliver food to an average of 800 homeless people basically living on the street. That number doubled in the last year from 400.
How are financial donations doing?
Donations of money to food banks across the country, not just Long Island Cares and Long Island Harvest, are up significantly. Covid and all the press that came with lines for food distribution hit a nerve with Americans. Our average donation in 2020 was roughly $85 per person. Previously it was $40 or $50.
How do things look in terms of providing holiday meals?
We seem to have enough resources to provide people with a holiday meal. We won’t be able to provide 15- or 16-pound turkeys. The supply chain is still backed up from Covid and the cost of food has gone up significantly. Last year, we were able to purchase an average turkey of 14 pounds at about 79 cents a pound. Today it’s $1.29 a pound. That will impact our ability to donate as much as we have in the past.
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