The COVID-19 pandemic has been behind a huge 60% surge in people seeking emergency food assistance during the past year, said the chief executive of the Long Island Cares food bank, citing many who had lost jobs because of the pandemic.

"During the first 12 months of COVID [March 2020 to March 2021], we saw 192,542 Long Islanders come to us for the very first time," Paule T. Pachter, chief executive of Long Island Cares — The Harry Chapin Regional Food Bank, said Thursday during a news conference at its Hauppauge headquarters.

"We vetted everyone that came to us," Pachter said. "So we knew exactly why they needed the food and 89% of the time … it was the same thing: 'I lost my job. I got furloughed'. Today, it's I 'lost my job. I got furloughed and I don't know when I'm going to be able to go back to work. My business closed.' "

What to know

  • 192,542 new people received emergency food assistance from Long Island Cares — The Harry Chapin Regional Food Bank between March 2020 and March 2021.
  • A total of 348,192 people were food insecure on Long Island between March 2020 and March 2021.
  • 18,957,519 pounds of food was distributed between March 2020 and March 2021.

A total of 217,910 Long Islanders were food insecure in 2019, Pachter said, citing Feeding America projections for Long Island and the food bank's own data. But that figure grew, Pachter said, when it added the 192,542 new people served by the food bank during the past year. He said a total of 348,192 people were food insecure, a 60% increase over 2019.

"Clearly what's driving this at the top is unemployment or underemployment. People that did go back to work after being laid off found another job, but are earning 20% to 30% less in their paycheck," Pachter said, adding that it poses challenges for the region's policymakers.

As Glauco Guerrero of Brentwood waited to get food from Pronto, a human service agency in Bay Shore, he said he had been out of work for six months when he started coming to Pronto's food pantry. Guerrero said he was working again, as a mail sorter, but not working as many hours as he had before.

Guerrero looked over the shopping cart full of food he was wheeling to his car — a frozen chicken, frozen ground beef, bread, grains and beans — estimating he had $100 worth of food he didn't have to pay for. He has a family of three. "It helps a lot."

Marc Soto, Pronto's executive director, said his agency gets food from both Long Island Cares and the region's other food bank, Island Harvest, as well as donations from a variety of businesses. He also said the pandemic has prompted an increase in people seeking out the food pantry, which operates six days a week.

Soto said the increase "was due largely to the pandemic and losing employment." He said, "Those who kept employment were not working the same hours … or were working at a lower wage."

He said the numbers coming to the pantry "pre-pandemic were typically 4,500 to 5,000 a month. We're still at around 7,000 people we're servicing every month for food alone." He said at the pandemic's height, his agency was providing food to 14,000 people a month.

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