Lisa Davis didn't have much food in the house in September when her son, Aidan, noticed she wasn't eating dinner one night. She said she explained to the 13-year-old that the COVID-19 shutdown had left her and her husband unemployed for months.
The boy was understandably upset.
That's when she called the food bank Island Harvest, which delivered to her home a box containing oatmeal, canned vegetables, chicken, cereal, and mac and cheese.
"It's not something anybody should go through," said Davis, 42, of North Massapequa. She had been working in the kitchen of an AMC dine-in movie theater in Levittown, and her husband, Daniel, was an electrician.
The need for food skyrocketed across Long Island in 2020, more than any year in modern memory, worse than the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy and the first year of the Great Recession, food bank officials say. Island Harvest, the largest food bank on Long Island, fed more than 550,000 families this past year, an increase of 83% above the previous year. Long Island Cares, a Hauppauge-based nonprofit that provides food for 350 food kitchens and pantries, saw demand rise by 72% and provided 12 million meals in 2020, officials said.
Food bank officials expect that even after COVID-19 vaccines are widely distributed, the virus-heightened need for food relief on Long Island will continue well into this year.
"We are now providing food for 480,000 people," said Paule T. Pachter, chief executive of Long Island Cares. "It's been very challenging, very emotional and an extremely rewarding year."
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, has said that enough doses of vaccine will be available for all Americans beginning in late March and early April, and that people by mid-fall could return to activities such as eating indoors at restaurants and going to the movies.
Long Island's unemployment rate dropped by almost a full percentage point in November, to 5.4%, though the figure was still above the rate from November 2019 of 3.4%, according to Labor Department figures.
Even after society returns to some semblance of normality, people who were financially battered by the virus crisis will need months to get back on their feet, Pachter said.
"It still takes a couple of months for people to get paychecks, pay off the loans they took out, pay back the money they borrowed from relatives," Pachter said. "Many businesses that closed are not going to reopen, and some have downsized, so they're not bringing back all their workers."
Collecting benefits took 3 months
Lisa Davis said she had never collected unemployment benefits, let alone sought help from a food bank, until COVID-19 shut down her and her husband's income in mid-March. In addition to Aidan, they have two other sons.
"I started getting nervous," Lisa Davis said. "I knew this was going to be a while."
Receiving unemployment benefits for her and her husband took three months, because it was so difficult to get through on the phone. The family cut back on spending. No more trips to Dave & Buster's. Fewer steaks at the grocery. By the fall, though, the family was in financial trouble again, she said.
"I thought, 'My kids will never do without. We'll sacrifice ourselves first,' " Davis said.
Then came the night that Aidan noticed she wasn't eating. (Davis said she was actually waiting for everybody else to finish their meal before she would find something to eat.)
Reaching out to a food bank wasn't easy — she was unable to shake her embarrassment, she said. But Davis knew she wasn't alone. All she had to do was turn on the TV news and see all the people lining up for food.
The Davis family received another box of food from Island Harvest in November, along with a Thanksgiving turkey and some gifts for the boys, who love "Star Wars."
Daniel had gotten a few scattered electrical jobs over the months, but no steady work. He worked for a few months for UPS during the holidays, but that's over now.
Looking ahead, Davis said she doesn't see a whole lot improving, at least for months, so she suspects she might have to ask for help again.
"It's just difficult," she said. "I never thought this would be something we would ever go through."
Starting nonprofit to help feed those in need
The day after Ryan Carroll lost his job as a chef in New York City — after restaurants closed in mid-March — he was cooking chicken parmigiana for his grandmother when a thought struck him: " 'If I'm going to feed my grandmother, why don't we feed everybody's grandmother?' " he recalled.
Carroll, 27, of Massapequa, started making calls, and more calls. He said he gathered with 35 chefs and hospitality workers he knew, all of whom were newly unemployed. They started cooking meals out of a rented restaurant space in Blue Point. They cooked and sold some meals online, and used the profits to make meals they provided for free, Carroll said.
Since then, he has become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit called Carroll's Kitchen, hired a handful of staff, and gathered donations and a few hundred volunteers to help cook and deliver meals across Long Island.
"I bought six books on Amazon and watched every video I could find on how to start a nonprofit," Carroll said.
Two weeks ago, needing a larger space, he rented 3,000 square feet in Bellmore. Carroll's Kitchen has fed 33,000 people in need on Long Island with free meals, from the elderly to veterans to people in low-income neighborhoods, he said. The charity is funded through private donations and the sale of meals.
"I feel like we're just getting started," Carroll said.
Scramble to find food, funding
For Long Island food banks, 2020 was a scramble to find more food and more funding.
Long Island Cares received about $370,000 from the federal government in 2020 to help with its emergency food assistance. Also, the food bank received a separate $2.4 million in federal money passed through the Town of Hempstead, which helped set up 18 pop-up food pantries in the town. They were mostly located in senior citizen centers. With that money running down, the charity had to shut 14 of the pop-ups at the end of 2020, Pachter said.
For Island Harvest, which delivers millions of pounds of food to 375 Long Island-based food pantries, soup kitchens and other nonprofits, it was a year of reinvention.
Since its inception in 1992, Island Harvest largely had depended on donated food from supermarkets, wholesalers and distributors. But when the coronavirus created havoc, people rushed into supermarkets, and they sold out of many products. Wholesalers and distributors scrambled to resupply them, having little left over for charities, Island Harvest president Randi Shubin Dresner said.
"They just didn't have excess product," Dresner said. "Our donations just stopped."
The food bank switched its focus from relying on donated items to purchasing food, soliciting monetary donations from people, corporations and government sources.
Island Harvest received about $4.3 million in federal aid and food, with some money passing through local municipalities. The nonprofit partnered with more than 30 Island school districts to distribute food at schools to the needy families of students. The charity held two food-relief events outside Nassau Coliseum this year, each drawing about 4,000 families for boxes of food, with cars snaking through the parking lot, down Hempstead Turnpike and onto Meadowbrook Parkway, Dresner said.
The struggle for funding will persist, Dresner said. The charity recently had to stop a program that provided 210,000 meals to 1,200 veterans, quarantined people and senior citizens because a $2 million grant ran out at the end of December.
"There are so many lost jobs, so many bills piling up," Dresner said. "We know that parents are giving up meals so kids can eat. We know that mothers are watering down formula. … This pandemic has hit so many people so hard, that it's not going to be easy to turn this thing around."