School was not in session when Jennifer Burgess drove into the parking lot of Eagle Avenue Elementary School in Medford on Thursday with her four children in the back seat of the SUV.
The reason was simple: Burgess, of Patchogue, needed food.
"My husband wasn't making as much [money] as in previous years because of the [COVID-19] pandemic," said Burgess, whose children range in age from 5 to 11. The free food, which Island Harvest Food Bank was distributing in partnership with the Patchogue-Medford School District, "helps keep the costs down," she added.
Island Harvest expects to provide 115,000 meals to about 1,200 children at 35 sites on Long Island during its Summer Food Service Program, which began last week, officials said. Long Island Cares, another regional food bank, is participating in the program as well, with 28 distribution sites across the Island. It expects to serve more than the 37,000 meals it provided last summer.
The food program is administered at the national level by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service, and at the state level by the Education Department. More than 400 organizations operating about 3,000 locations in New York are participating in the program, state officials said. The department said about 400,000 children 18 and under across the state would receive free meals.
Under the state's program regulations, "Meals must be served in low-income communities where at least 50 percent of children are eligible for free and reduced-price school meals, or in other locations where at least 50 percent of the children enrolled in a specific program are eligible for free and reduced-price school meals."
Scores of residents of the Patchogue and Medford communities made their way to Eagle Avenue Elementary last week. Parents and grandparents popped open the trunks of their vehicles, where food bank workers deposited the "grab-and-go" bags, two per child, of breakfast cereal, milk and a fruit cup, and lunch packages consisting of a sandwich, two fruits and a milk.
On this day, the meals were augmented with canned goods for the entire family. At other times, it could be produce and possibly even meat, said Allison Puglia, Island Harvest's chief programs and network officer, as she directed Thursday's distribution. She anticipated enough food for 150 children would be given out that day.
Of Island Harvest's 35 sites, Puglia said 12 are open to the public, and one more likely will open. She said the benefit of an open site is that there are "no requirements." At other sites, only children registered for that particular program are eligible.
Also lined up at Eagle Avenue Elementary was Sahara Walker, of Medford, a mother of four children, ages 4, 8, 12 and 13, who said the food was "a help." She said husband, a chef, had been furloughed, but was now back at work.
For Cherry Maharaj, of Medford, the food also was helpful for her husband, "who works 98 percent of the time," and their four children, ages 13, 6, 4 and 3. "They eat a lot," she said, laughing. "They're always hungry, no matter how much you feed them."
She said it was the first time she had come for food. She said she learned about it from a flyer one of her children brought home from school.
Island Harvest has partnered with the Patchogue-Medford district to provide breakfast and lunch to children, not only those who attend district schools, but also for the community at large.
"We are using our partnership with Island Harvest to feed any community members," said Jessica Lukas, the school district's assistant superintendent for special education and pupil services. "Eagle elementary is one of the satellite sites."
She said the district also operates a food pantry at its family center at Saxton Middle School.
"We know there is a need," Lukas said. "In the month of June alone, we fed 945 residents of the Patchogue-Medford school district. … We’ve seen an alarming increase, especially after COVID, of our community members who need food assistance."
Island Harvest's partners in the summer program extend beyond school districts. "These partnerships include libraries, parks, schools, community centers and churches," Puglia said.
At Eagle Avenue Elementary, Puglia informed everyone of the days the distribution would occur at the school — Mondays and Thursdays.
"Whenever we start out the summer, we put out an initial projection," of how many children would be served, Puglia said. "But there’s a potential for the number of meals and children served [to] grow. Our goal is to serve as many kids in need as possible to fill the meal gap."
What to know
The Summer Food Service Program, federally funded and state administered, is underway. Meals must be served in low-income communities where at least 50% of children are eligible for free and reduced-price school meals or in other locations where at least 50% of the children enrolled in a specific program are eligible for free and reduced-price school meals.
Children 18 and younger are eligible to participate in the program, as are persons over age 18 with physical or mental disabilities who participate in a public or nonprofit private school program established for children with disabilities.
Island Harvest has 35 locations where it's operating the program, a dozen of which are open to the public. They are the Baldwin Library, Kennedy Memorial Park in Hempstead, Roosevelt Public Library, Uniondale Library, Pronto of Long Island in Bay Shore, Brentwood Library, Brookhaven Elementary School, Central Islip Library, Huntington Public Library, Eagle Avenue Elementary School in Medford, Patchogue-Medford Library and Wyandanch Plaza.