Growing Number of Local Food Pantries Serve Needy

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The number of food pantries has multiplied in the last three decades in Westchester County the second wealthiest county in New York State

Last Saturday, in sub-zero weather, a long line of people with empty shopping bags stood outside The Community Food Pantry at St. Mary’s Mohegan Lake. Many were eager to get inside where it was warm and they could select food to last the week. At one end of the overcrowded parking lot, long tables were manned by several young volunteers handing out turkeys, fruit and vegetables.

The number of food pantries has multiplied in the last three decades in Westchester County, the second-wealthiest county in New York State. With a population of just under one million, Westchester’s median household income hovers around $92,000, according to 2018 census statistics. Yet, many Westchester residents who are not among the affluent and upper middle class are going hungry.

Hunger is not unique to Westchester. Over the past 40 years, Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief organization, has generated more than 200 local food banks throughout all 50 states. These food banks supply food pantries, soup kitchens, senior and children daycare centers, shelters and residential programs. Annually they feed 40 million people, including 12 million children and seven million seniors. Last year, Feeding America provided 4.2 billion meals to people in need.

Feeding Westchester operates under Feeding America’s umbrella and is the county’s leading nonprofit food bank with more than 300 partnering corporations, foundations and businesses. According to their statistics, one in five people in Westchester are at risk of hunger. Last year, Feeding Westchester delivered more than 10.1 million pounds of food, the equivalent of 8.5 million meals.

Their sprawling, 30,000-square-foot distribution center in Elmsford is where food is inspected, sorted, stored and prepared for delivery. “We have about 11,000 volunteers who put in what amounts to the hourly work of 19 full-time employees a year. Our 50 full-time employees work at the distribution center,” said Monique McCoy, Manager of Agency Relations at Feeding Westchester. The organization has a fleet of eight refrigerated trucks that deliver food to pantries and centers in Westchester.

According to McCoy, most food comes from 60 or 70 local supermarkets throughout the county. “They donate excess food that is nearing an expiration date that normally would be discarded, such as too many cartons of milk,” McCoy said. “Supermarkets also donate fresh produce or other perishables.”

Every year the food bank recovers more than three million pounds of good, nutritious food that would otherwise go to waste.

Feeding Westchester has encouraged food pantries to use the “by choice” system to allow those to choose what they need as opposed to taking a pre-filled bag of food. From a psychological standpoint, it lessens the sense of being needy and empowers one to make selections.

The Community Food Pantry at St. Mary’s Mohegan Lake is one of the first pantries in Westchester to be a ‘choice pantry.’

“People come in and select from what we have available,” said Terry Berardi, co-coordinator of the pantry. “We are set up like a grocery store and try to provide meals for three days that include three proteins and three vegetables.”

The pantry has been in operation for almost 40 years and is staffed completely by volunteers. “When we first started, we had about 20 families a week,” said Berardi. “Now we have about 104 families a week.” This Thanksgiving the pantry gave out turkeys and fixings to 183 families.

The pantry offers frozen meats, poultry or fish; at least once a month, fresh produce is supplied by Feeding Westchester and during the growing season fresh produce is supplied by Hilltop Hanover Farms in Yorktown. Monetary and food donations come from a variety of organizations. One of the pantry’s largest supporters is the Archdiocese of Episcopal Charities but they also partner and receive donations from other houses of worship such as the Grace Lutheran Church, St. Andrews and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Shrub Oak.

Among local markets participating in monetary donations and bag programs are ACME, Stop & Shop and DeCicco’s Jefferson Valley. “We also have incredible food drives by groups such as the Girl Scouts and Lakeland High School,” said Berardi. “We are extremely fortunate.”

According to Data USA, 89,000 people in Westchester live below the poverty line. But many who show up at food pantries don’t meet the federal requirements for Food Stamps. “Many of the folks we see are the working poor making low wages,” said Berardi. “So, what do you do? Do you put shoes on your kids? Do you pay your medical bills? Or do you come to us? Any one of us could be on the other side of the table at any point in our lives.”

Last Saturday, Berardi checked in people as they bustled inside. Once they chose their food, some found their way inside the church where volunteers wearing Santa hats filled pews to the brim with toys and games while Christmas carols played over loud speakers.

The Ossining Food Pantry, operating for more than 30 years out of Trinity Church in downtown Ossining, serves residents of Ossining and Briarcliff Manor. Their “choice pantry” requires general information about residence, household size, and financial need.

“We escort them to the different food stations,” said Marty Engelhardt, volunteer and spokesperson for the pantry. “We get to know their first names, recognize their faces and learn what they need. Eventually you become friends.”

Engelhardt recalled when the pantry first opened its doors. “It was August 1988, and we were expecting hordes. One person came! Today we serve about 350 individuals every week.” Most food comes from Feeding Westchester and ShopRite. Community funding is from numerous local organizations, houses of worship, service and civic organizations, school groups, scouts, and local businesses.  Food drives for the pantry donate money and in-kind services. Fresh produce comes from Mariandale, Maryknoll’s Pachamama Farm. The pantry’s Ossining Farmers’ Market Coupon Program offers coupons to buy fresh produce from the market’s participating vendors.

The pantry runs a series of outreach programs that deliver bags of food where needed. Food is brought to the Ossining Children’s Center and St. Matthew’s Day Care as part of their Agency Delivery Program. For families in crisis, the pantry can provide food within 24 hours, seven days a week. The Mobile Pantry at Star of Bethlehem Church (304 Spring St.) distributes meat, dairy and produce two Wednesday afternoons each month and their Home Delivery Program delivers bags of groceries to sick, elderly and disabled clients unable to come to the pantry. There are about 150 to 200 active volunteers who help run these programs; there is no paid staff.

“We get help from the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and students from the church school,” said Engelhardt. “What the youth of our community does here would knock your socks off. It’s the community coming together to help neighbors in need — like spokes in a wheel. It’s so beautiful to see.”

Just about a year ago, the Pantry at Mt. Carmel was opened by Kacey Morabito and her sister Maria Morabito. Kacey Morabito, the pantry’s executive director, recalled how she had a sudden calling to open a food pantry. The perfect place for it was in the lower level of Mt. Carmel Hall on 8th Street in Verplanck, close to where she lives.

“It all happened within hours,” said Morabito. “We posted it on Facebook that we were opening a food pantry at Mt. Carmel Hall and got terrific support. The community has been incredible. Everybody wants to take care of each other.”

To initially set up the pantry, Morabito quickly connected with Feeding Westchester for guidance and learned the basics of running a food pantry. “We also learned a lot from other area pantries who showed us tremendous support.”

Food comes from Feeding Westchester, food and cash donations are received by many local churches, Super Food Town of Croton, several local businesses, Verplanck Seniors, area schools, various drives, and races. “We have about 20 volunteers, some work out in the field collecting money, others work in the pantry,” said Morabito.

At first, they opened once a month and about eight families showed up. But as word got out and more families came, they opened every second and fourth Saturday of each month. Today, the pantry provides a large bag of free groceries each to about 40 families living in Verplanck, Montrose, Buchanan and Cortlandt. Morabito said no identification is necessary. “We follow the shopper’s model so there is a feeling of integrity and people in need can feel like they are going to the super market,” she said.

Shoppers are paired with an escort who carries their bags. “It’s that person to person contact that helps us get to know our shoppers and find out who is at home, who has food allergies and what their needs are,” said Morabito, a radio personality on WHUD. “We know 90 percent of our shoppers on a first name basis.”

The Pantry at Mt. Carmel has become more than a place to get food. Holiday celebrations see the pantry open its doors, especially for its first anniversary coming up in January 2020. “There’s not a day that goes by when at least one of the volunteers sees something that moves them,” said Morabito. “Not too long ago a mother and her little boy were shopping and the boy said, ‘Look mommy. There are the ladies that like us.’ He felt welcome. You see life at its best at this pantry.”

Not too far from the Pantry at Mt. Carmel is the Croton-Cortlandt Food Pantry, which started operation in 1983 and serves some of the same communities as Mt. Carmel. The pantry is open every Saturday morning year-round and families and individuals can come once a month. In 2016, the pantry moved from Asbury Church in Croton where they had been for 30 years to the bigger, multi-purposed space at the Holy Name of Mary Church in Croton-on-Hudson.

“We needed a bigger space so we could offer a ‘choice pantry,’” said Maria Rykowski, the pantry’s treasurer and inventory manager who has volunteered there since 2005. Rykowski said about 40 families come to the pantry once a week. “So far this year we have served 1,430 families — 2,700 are adults and over 2,000 are children. A big percentage of those coming to the pantry are children.” The size of a family determines how much food they are allowed.

The pantry is run by a core group of 50 volunteers along with high school students who fulfill their community service by helping stock shelves and carrying groceries to cars.

“Food pantries are popping up all over,” said Rykowski. “When I started 14 years ago, we gave away about 70 turkeys for Thanksgiving. Now we give away 160. Turkeys are donated by the Rotary Club and one of its members supplies his business truck to deliver the turkeys.”

Rykowski said by the end of this year, the pantry will have purchased 40,000 pounds of food, most of it from Feeding Westchester. “We couldn’t survive without them. They handle our grants.” Food is also purchased from local stores and donations come from many local religious, educational, and civic organizations and numerous individuals.

Some volunteers purchase a $500 share from Lineage Farms, a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in Copake, New York and donate their share of farm fresh vegetables to the pantry during April to October. “That produce is fresh and fantastic,” said Rykowski. “It’s a long way from canned spinach.”

In the summer, fresh produce also comes from the Croton Community Garden and the Holy Name of Mary Church garden. Regular donations of baked goods come from Bagels on Hudson and Baked by Susan.

“You make your choices and many times the easiest thing to cut is your food,” said Rykowski. “You want a roof over your head and heat in your home. No one would go to a food pantry unless they needed to. It’s a big help.”

Last week, the Trump administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced changes to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also called food stamps). The change is expected to end benefits for hundreds of thousands of people ages 18-49 who don’t have kids and are required to work at least 20 hours a week in order to get food stamps. If they don’t work, those adults are limited to just three months of SNAP benefits every three years. The cuts will impact an estimated 107,000 New Yorkers in April when they go into effect.

Feeding Westchester has a SNAP Coordinator who deals with prospective governmental changes. Last year when the federal government shut down and SNAP funds were delayed, McCoy said they were able to add extra deliveries to their schedule and arrange for their emergency mobile food pantry to be at the Westchester County Center in White Plains to help those who didn’t receive their food stamps.

Every 18 months, Feeding Westchester visits various food pantries. McCoy said the visits are required by New York State and Feeding America.

“People are so humble,” said McCoy. “I was at a food pantry and met a woman who told me how grateful she was for the food. She said housing costs and medical bills were rising but because of the food pantry she was able to feed her family. There is a misconception that people on line are poor and on assistance. That is so far from the truth.”

The Community Food Pantry at St. Mary’s Mohegan Lake

1836 East Main Street
Mohegan Lake, NY 10547
Phone – (914) 528-3972

Saturdays 9:30 a.m. – 11 a.m.

www.cfpstmarysmoheganlake.com

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