Barbara Bolen hopes that every community on Long Island will steal the idea she has turned into action in Northport and East Northport: "Encourage people to buy gift cards to help the restaurants get through the winter, and then distribute the cards to people who go to food pantries."
Over the holidays, Bolen was considering the plight of two at-risk groups in her community — the hungry and struggling restaurants — and she asked Darin Parker, owner of Northport’s Main Street Cafe, if she could make a weekly purchase of the restaurant’s family meal ($60 for four people) and donate it to a family in need.
Parker loved the sentiment, but she knew the process could get unwieldy if it extended beyond a handful of families. She suggested Bolen talk to a local food pantry. Bolen consulted Carol Nenninger Crowley, a volunteer at The St. Vincent de Paul food pantry at St. Anthony of Padua in East Northport. Within days, the Takeout Project was born and, for now, serves two food pantries: the one at St. Anthony of Padua in East Northport and the Ecumenical Lay Council Food Pantry of Northport.
"It’s been blowing up on Facebook," Bolen said. (It didn’t hurt that CBS2 News at 6 did a story.) "We've collected more than $1,500 in gift certificates so far."
At Main Street Cafe, the response has been overwhelming. "One woman came in and bought 10 $60 cards," Parker said. "Another spent $200." Parker is an old hand at hunger-related community outreach. For decades, she has encouraged her patrons to stuff cash into the 100-plus Christmas stockings she hangs over the bar; she then turns the money into Stop & Shop gift cards (the supermarket kicks in another 5%) and gives them to a food pantry.
But she appreciates that the Takeout Project can extend beyond the holidays. "This time of year, people think about those less fortunate — it’s natural," she said. "But the need is there all year long."
Right now, the program is only in Northport and East Northport, with Bolen and Crowley collecting the gift cards and handing them over to the two participating food pantries. "It’s really all we can handle," Bolen said, "but it would be great if there were a person in every community who would take this idea and run with it."
If you want to donate a gift card from a Northport restaurant, email email@example.com; for East Northport, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Put "Takeout Project" in the subject line. For more information, go to facebook.com/The-Takeout-Project.