Shelves Full, Future Unsure at Food Pantries

Those who meet a growing demand need help too
John Ryan, a volunteer with the East Hampton Food Pantry, loaded his truck with bags of food
John Ryan, a volunteer with the East Hampton Food Pantry, loaded his truck with bags of food to be transferred to the pantry’s satellite location in Amagansett. With winter approaching, pantry officials said they are operating on dangerously thin supplies. Stephen J. Kotz

As the pleasant days of early September give way to the biting winds of November, the East Hampton Food Pantry at Whalebone Village sees a spike in the number of people filing through its doors to wait in line for a few bags of groceries to help them get through the week.

“As soon as we hit Labor Day, the numbers start to go up right away,” said Gabrielle Scarpaci, the executive director of the pantry, which, along with its satellite at the St. Michael’s Lutheran Church senior citizen housing in Amagansett, is the largest in town. “They need help.”

So does the pantry itself. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, she said the food pantry’s bank account was down to about $20,000. “This is the lowest we’ve ever been. We’re really in trouble.”

The culprit, she said, is a falloff in donations and a general rise in the number of people relying on the pantry.



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Through October, the pantry had already seen 25,464 client visits, or 9,431 family visits. That puts it on pace to hit the 30,000 mark this year, with many of those clients returning week after week.

While that is down significantly from the record set in 2010, when it served 43,519, and even off a bit from last year, when it had 32,701 client visits, it is still three times as many as at the beginning of the recession, when it helped 10,770.

The pantry is open from 2 to 6 p.m. each Tuesday. The Amagansett satellite is open from 4 to 6 p.m.

“The majority of the people who live out here full time are working class,” said Vicki Littman, the owner of Vicki’s Veggies in Amagansett and chairwoman of the pantry’s board of directors. “Many have seasonal jobs; whatever they’ve made in the summer, they live off of in the winter.”

The people relying on the pantry run the gamut from a young man who came to the East End looking for work last summer and instead found himself unemployed and homeless, sleeping in the woods, to senior citizens who live in the town’s subsidized apartments. In between are many families, locals and newcomers, including members of the growing Spanish-speaking community, although Ms. Scarpaci said their numbers had stabilized as many of the day laborers who used to be seen gathering at places like the East Hampton train station have apparently left the area.

It hasn’t helped that the federal government has cut back on the food stamps program. Ms. Scarpaci said she knew of one senior citizen whose food stamps will be reduced by $70 a month. “That’s a lot when you are living on a fixed income,” she said.

Despite a steady flow of donations from food drives like the Harvest for Hunger planned for this Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the East Hampton Middle School, the food pantry still burns through $4,000 to $5,000 a week buying food to keep its shelves stocked, Ms. Scarpaci said.

Besides canned goods and other non-perishables like pasta and cereal, the East Hampton pantry tries to offer its clients a selection of fresh meats, vegetables, and fruits, and even milk and other dairy products, which are stored in a walk-in cooler on the premises.

The pantry’s annual fund-raising letter will be going out soon. “Around the holidays we get the most donations,” Ms. Scarpaci said, but the board of directors of the largely volunteer organization is now turning its attention to ways to beef up its fund-raising efforts.

Ms. Scarpaci said the pantry’s board of directors had decided to discontinue a summertime fund-raiser, movies at the beach, because it does not make any money from it, despite its popularity. Similarly, it is looking for ways to find corporate sponsors to help increase the amount of money raised during the New Year’s Day Polar Bear Plunge.

Ms. Littman said that last year participation in the plunge dropped off when the event was moved from Main Beach in East Hampton, which suffered serious damage in Hurricane Sandy, to Atlantic Avenue Beach in Amagansett. It did not help that the weather, which had been downright balmy in previous years, did not cooperate.

Still, they said, they are grateful for the substantial help they get from service clubs and schools as well as local grocery stores and farmers.

This Saturday, for instance, members of the East Hampton Rotary Club will be posted at grocery stores in town to collect food that will be distributed among local pantries. The Girl Scouts will join the effort. Recently, students at the Ross School ran a food drive to help stock the pantry’s shelves for Thanksgiving, and many local businesses make regular donations and have collection boxes on site.

The pantry also is helped by Island Harvest and Long Island Cares, which contribute to pantries across Long Island.
 

Springs

The Springs Community Food Pantry, housed at the Springs Community Presbyterian Church, typically serves on average about 60 families from the Springs community each week, said its coordinator, Dru Raley, although it had obtained 70 turkeys for Thanksgiving meals it plans to distribute. The number of families stopping in on Wednesdays from 2 to 6 p.m. can peak at more than 100 in the winter, she said.

Springs, like other pantries in town, typically relies on its own fund-raising efforts, although it does share in some of the major drives and will be a drop-off point for Saturday’s Harvest for Hunger drive.

In the middle of the winter, the pantry can spend $1,500 to $2,000 per week on food. “In the summer, we’re in better shape because we get produce from the Food Pantry Farm [at the East Hampton Community Organic Farm on Long Lane] and other farms,” Ms. Raley said.

“We have trucks coming in with food almost every week. It’s like a business,” she said. “When you are feeding that many people you can’t just go to Waldbaum’s.”

Families can expect to get enough food for three or four meals a week, including meats, dairy products, and fresh fruits and vegetables, when available.

“We’re not feeding them for the week, but we are certainly helping them along the way,” she said.
 

Montauk

Unlike the town’s other food pantries, the Montauk Food Pantry is only open for six months a year, from November through April. “That’s when the people around here lose their jobs,” said Alice Houseknecht, a volunteer, of Montauk’s resort town economy. She added that a small army of volunteers helps out. “As they say, it takes a village,” she said.

The pantry is open in the basement of the school building at St. Therese of Lisieux Catholic Church on Essex Street from 6:30 p.m. until people stop coming, according to Fran Ecker, the organization’s longtime president.

“We get over 100 families when we do it,” said Mrs. Ecker, noting that the pantry only serves Montauk residents, who are asked to sign in.

Mrs. Ecker said Montauk is fortunate because so many residents, year-round and part-time, contribute to its annual appeal. Plus, she said, the pantry receives donations from a variety of other sources including the Chamber of Commerce’s summer farmers market, a parish flower and vegetable garden at St. Therese, food drives at the Montauk School, donations from local restaurants and stores, and events like the annual Turkey Trot run on Thanksgiving. “Everyone pitches in,” she said. “It’s beautiful.”


Wainscott

Living Waters Church at 69 Industrial Road in Wainscott also runs a pantry that is open from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and from 10 a.m. to noon on Fridays, although clients are asked to come only once a week unless they are facing an emergency, according to Corinne Alversa, a volunteer and congregation member.

She said that the pantry serves on average 70 families a week and was preparing Thanksgiving packages this week.

Like other pantries, the one at Living Waters Church sees its client base swell as seasonal work dries up, despite a slowly improving economy.
 

Sag Harbor

The Sag Harbor Community Food Pantry is open on Tuesdays from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Old Whalers Church.

“It’s the same old story,” according to Evelyn Ramunno, one of the pantry’s coordinators, who said the number of people relying on the pantry spikes as seasonal work ends.

If the pantry saw an average of 45 families a week during the summer, it is now seeing somewhere in the high 80s.

Like other pantries, Sag Harbor tries to provide nutritious food, including meats, dairy products, and fresh fruits and vegetables, whenever possible.

The pantry, which can spend up to $1,200 a week on food in the winter, has been fortunate to receive a generous response to its annual appeal letter, she said.