It’s nearly 7 p.m. on a darkened street in Huntington Station, where, for the last hour, people have been arriving on foot, bicycle or car. Some lurk in the shadows, eyeing a stranger; children skip on a sidewalk, cling to each other or shyly hang behind their parents.
They ask each other and anyone they think might know: Where is the truck? Is this the right day? Is the food coming?
When the truck arrives, volunteers from Food Not Bombs climb out, set up tables and begin the ritual of feeding scores of people. This distribution happens in different communities five nights a week across Long Island, one of many efforts to keep hunger at bay.
In a land of plenty, the need for even basic staples is growing. Some food pantries around Long Island are asking -- even pleading -- for more donations, citing the increased demand as more middle-class residents seek their help. As the economy continues to wobble, as more people run out of ways to stretch a paycheck, it’s no longer just the permanently poor who need help, the pantries say.
"Sometimes it's between having enough money to pay a bill or to have food. But God is good. He led me to this place."
Many food assistance operations get supplies from such places as Food Not Bombs, Island Harvest or Long Island Cares -- The Harry Chapin Food Bank. Island Harvest and Food Not Bombs specialize in collecting and redistributing food from restaurants and other sources. LI Cares uses corporate support to buy and redistribute food. They also take donations, as do food pantries.
Paule T. Pachter, executive director of Long Island Cares, has his finger on the pulse of what Long Island food-assistance programs need and why.
“What we’re seeing is about a 10.5 percent increase across our network of 600 organizations, pantries, soup kitchens,” Pachter said. “The fact is that the number of people hungry or considered food insecure as measured by the USDA, in the past year alone, has gone from 287,000 to 320,000. That’s a significant increase of 35,000 people” on Long Island.
Children's Nutrition Compromised
Among that population of hungry are many children.
“From 2010, it’s increased by about 8,500 children; 118,500 children who don’t know where next meal is coming from. Their nutrition is compromised,” Pachter said. LI Cares expects to distribute more than 6 million pounds of food this year.
The increase in need periodically empties the shelves of the Ecumenical Lay Council Food Pantry at the in Northport.
“We’re seeing about 150 families a week,” said Sally Stark, who runs the Northport program. “Sometimes we get as many as 50 in one day. It’s a third more from three years ago.”
With the median household income on Long Island recently estimated at $86,232, the area would at first glance seem to be far removed from hard times.
But, like others, Pachter sees problems. “The economy is wreaking havoc; people are hurting; they’re living paycheck to paycheck. There are a lot of people you’d never expect who are walking into a pantry now.”
As the holiday season nears, the number of events to collect food and raise hunger awareness grows, starting with multi-purpose National Food Day on Monday. Among the goals for the day are addressing conditions that have nearly 50 million Americans struggling with ways to assure they have enough food.
"The need is the same" year round, Pachter said. "The difference between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31 is that people are in a giving spirit. There’s something to be said about people who don’t have food on the holidays."
Many find it difficult to acknowledge they need help, embarrassed to have to ask for food even as many say circumstances beyond their control put them where they are.
A woman at the Hempstead food distribution on Sunday didn't want to be identified but said she was a grandmother taking care of four young children. "It can be very hard," she said. "Sometimes it's between having enough money to pay a bill or to have food. But God is good. He led me to this place."
Meeting Other Needs
Though primarily about feeding people, the food banks and pantries find themselves offering provisions or services to meet other needs: School supplies, or in some cases, pet supplies.
With some recipients, particularly elderly people, sharing their food so their only companions won’t suffer, some sites have begun offering pet supplies.
“Bumblebee tuna isn’t a good idea for cats,” Pachter said wryly. So about two years ago, the organization added a pet pantry.
LI Cares also has created two pantries of its own, one at its and the other in Freeport where those in need can select items. Its two mobile units take food to those in need, connecting at libraries or other spaces for those who can’t go to an established pantry. It also has started a program that focuses on veterans and their families.
parish in Massapequa finds itself providing a broad program addressing multiple needs. Danielle LaRose, director of outreach, said her program is full service, assessing a family’s needs to determine whether other problems have to be addressed. That could mean job help, counseling, or ensuring services for a child with special education needs.
She said the numbers of families registered with the program has gone from about 20 just two years ago to more than 150 now.
“People should know, it really is your neighbors,” LaRose said. “There’s not a typical family; it could be a homeless teen, a husband and wife, very successful, who have lost their jobs, a pregnant teenager.”
Too Much Suffering
But for Jon Stepanian, 27, of Food Not Bombs, there are just too many people suffering.
“Most of Long Island's poor already work one or two jobs, but they're forced to make choices like skipping lunch to pay for the gas to get to work. We try to alleviate some of those problems by sharing free food,” Stepanian said. “We share a weeks worth of groceries (five-plus bags) with over 3,000 people each week. Our food shares can save the average family of four $80 a week off their grocery bills.”
Food Not Bombs has a philosophy, Stepanian said: “Food is a right, not a privilege.”
You can find more articles from this ongoing series, “Dispatches: The Changing Amerian Dream” from across the country at The Huffington Post.