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(Photo credit: iStock, AJ_Watt)

In 1997, Alice Houseknecht’s mother, Betty, was sitting in church when she and two other women noticed several fishermen and farmers who they feared were not going to make it through the winter. “They needed some help,” says Houseknecht, who is the Director of the Montauk Food Pantry. “[My mom and her friends] started going around door to door. They collected food and they gave it out. It was a community where you looked out for each other, where you knew everybody. Where people would see that someone needed help and they would just give it.”  

27 East bisects the South Fork of eastern Long Island creating its own demographic fork. South of the Highway live some of the wealthiest people in the world. In a recent Property Shark real estate report on the most expensive zip codes in the country, Sagaponack was second from the top, with Water Mill and Bridgehampton rounding out the top 25 in the nation. 

But in the working-class enclaves north of the Highway, it can be a very different scenario. It’s here you find the good, dedicated work of community members like Houseknect, banding together to find consistent resources to make sure their neighbors don’t go hungry. 

Neighbors in need

Social scientists say a reliable measure of food insecurity in a community is the percentage of students K-12 who are eligible for a free school lunch based on family income. Data gathered by New York State and reported by the Kids Well-being Indicators Clearinghouse (KWIC) shows that in Suffolk County that percentage was at 40 percent in 2020. In some South Fork school districts, well over 50 percent of families live at or below the poverty level. The cost of living here is that high.

(Photo credit: Amy Zavatto)

The number of people seeking supplemental food from the network of food pantries on the South Fork has tripled since the beginning of the pandemic. Most of them work at least one, and often two jobs, make too much to qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, live paycheck to paycheck and see their income drop around the same time their heating bills spike. 

Directors of local food pantries across the South Fork expect to see even more food insecurity this winter. Holly Wheaton, who runs the food pantry that serves the residents of Springs says, “The supervisor of the town told me, ‘I think you are feeding 25 percent of Springs.’”  

Wheaton described the community that uses the Springs Food Pantry as “an eclectic group, mainly service people who barely get through, going paycheck to paycheck.” Two weeks ago, the Springs Food Pantry fed 201 families amounting to more than 1000 people, the highest number than any given day during the pandemic. They are on track to feed over 42,000 people this year.

Molly Bishop the Executive Director at Heart of the Hamptons in Southampton runs a food pantry with once-a-week pickups on Wednesdays and Fridays for about 200 Southampton families, and provides a wide range of other services. “There is nothing we don’t do,” says Bishop. “We’ve bought someone a refrigerator because everyone does need access to a refrigerator. If we can provide an essential need, we will.” About 10 percent of their clients are seniors and over 25 percent are children. In the first year of Covid, the number of families they serve tripled, and this year they are seeing even higher numbers.   

(Photo credit: Amy Zavatto)

East Hampton Food Pantry is biggest South Fork food pantry, covering the widest swath of geography. Founded in 1989 with several distribution sites, they serve anyone with an East Hampton address, although many who need food will go to a closer community food pantry instead. Distribution to about 300 families a week takes place on Tuesdays at their Pantigo Road location, the first Tuesday of the month in Amagansett, and at East Hampton High School.

Houseknecht’s mother founded the Montauk Food Pantry. Now that she’s inherited it, Houseknecht oversees the distribution of hundreds of meals a week to local families and gets to tell her mother all about it. “She’s 92 and blind, but she lives very close to me, so she hears about it every day.”

Where do food pantry supplies comes from?

It is a cruel irony that food insecurity is common in a place known for farming, where the men and women who raise the heirloom tomatoes and pick the apples often can’t afford to buy them.

Important sources of fresh food for the Montauk, Springs and Heart of the Hamptons food pantries are donations from three generous local farms: Balsam Farms, Amber Waves and Share the Harvest, a food pantry farm.  But that’s not enough to meet the staggering need.

Wheaton estimates her produce costs alone for the Springs pantry at $4,000 a week. “I have to spend about $20,000 a week total to feed our people.” About 80 percent is ordered from wholesalers and the rest comes from donations and Long Island Cares, which supplies food pantries across all of Long Island.  

In October, the East End Food Institute announced plans to expand the Riverhead Winter Farmers Market site at Route 105 and Route 25 to accommodate a food processing facility for schools and food pantries, a project that has the potential to open up a better supply of fresh food for local pantries to distribute. 

The freedom to choose what to eat

Run by Evie Ramunno, the Sag Harbor Community Food Pantry is currently serving about 90 families a week using a “client choice” model, which allows people to choose the items they need from tables set up in the Old Whalers Church in Sag Harbor. On Tuesday mornings, clients pick out pantry items and staples sufficient for about nine meals from a selection of donated and purchased food. It’s a model that most food pantries preferred before Covid forced them to limit indoor activity, because it allows families to select the foods that are best for them.  

The Springs pantry is one of those that has not yet gone back to a client choice model, so Wheaton made a change when she heard that many of them were not embracing the traditional Thanksgiving menu. Wheaton went to the local IGA and ordered hundreds of $25 gift certificates. “They get all the trimmings; cabbages and squash, celery, bread stuffing and then a gift card and go buy meat of choice,” she says.  “That’s the best way that I can help. We do get some turkeys donated and I will certainly give them out, but a lot of our recipients would rather have the gift card.”

Creative ways to donate

There is no question that the most efficient way to support the work of these South Fork food pantries is to go to their web site and donate money. “Money allows us to order in bulk,” says Wheaton, “to get 30 cases of the same hot cereal for everybody, and to order produce.”

Wheaton, third from left, flanked by dedicated volunteers Anne McCann, Karen Dupay, and Theresa Cherry. (Photo credit: Amy Zavatto)

All of food pantries welcome donated food, but most will only accept shelf-stable canned or packaged food with up-to-date expiration dates and no dents or damage. Fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, frozen food and glass jars are not accepted by most food pantries.

Creativity in fundraising counts. If you enjoy swimming in cold water, fight food insecurity in Southampton at the Annual Polar Bear plunge on December 10th, through which Heart of the Hamptons raises about a third of their annual budget. In Montauk, the Chamber of Commerce donates most of the proceeds from the booths at the Montauk Farmers Market to the Montauk Food Pantry. Or dedicate your personal goals to a good cause. “One of my volunteers ran in the New York City Marathon and raised $27,000 dollars for us,” said Houseknecht. 

Some donors have found creative ways to address a specific need. The Springs Food Pantry has an anonymous donor: a retired caseworker who used to work in schools,” says Wheaton, “She told me, ‘I know how these kids feel when their classmate has a snack and they don’t have one.’” The donor orders healthy snacks through Costco and has them delivered to the pantry for distribution. 

One donor to Heart of the Hamptons underwrites a weekly hot meal delivery to seniors. This extremely generous person identified the need during the pandemic, when seniors dared not go out and restaurants were struggling to stay afloat; through this donation, now the program supports local seniors as well as a local restaurant. Bishop, Executive Director of Heart of the Hamptons, say the pantry has volunteers who deliver the meals from the restaurant, and the donor covers the $12,000 a year cost of the program.

Bishop is always looking to broaden the services they provide beyond food, especially for children, “because every kid needs a little joy in their lives.” She would like to find donors to help local kids participate in youth sports. “I’d like to cover five kids to play basketball this winter.”

The sheer numbers of food insecure people can be overwhelming to food pantry workers, but Wheaton is buoyed by the successes. Every year the Springs Food Pantry reregisters all families, and most of them bring in a utility bill or a note from their landlord to verify their residency.  This year, one woman brought in her property tax bill. “She is waving a paper, saying, ‘I bought the house, I bought the house, and you helped me!’” Wheaton says. “She’s been working two jobs for years. Finally, she bought the house.”

East Hampton Food Pantry, 159 Pantigo Road, East Hampton. Donate at http://easthamptonfoodpantry.org/donate

Heart of the Hamptons Food Pantry,168 Hill St., Southampton Village. Donate at https://heartofthehamptons.org/donate/

Montauk Food Pantry, St. Therese Parish Center, 67 South Essex Street, Montauk. Donate at https://www.montaukfoodpantry.org/donate/

Sag Harbor Community Food Pantry, Old Whaler’s Church, 44 Union St. Sag Harbor, Donate at https://www.sagharborfoodpantry.org/donations

Springs Food Pantry, 5 Old Stone Highway, East Hampton. Donate at http://www.springsfoodpantry.com

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