Army veteran Wilmer Dorce said it isn’t easy to feed a family of six on his military disability payments and his wife’s earnings as a home health aide.
So it was with gratitude that he picked up an 18-pound turkey and bread, stuffing mix, potato flakes, pasta and vegetables for his family’s Thanksgiving Day dinner at the Huntington Station location of Long Island Cares — The Harry Chapin Food Bank.
“Thank God they gave me a big one,” he smiled, pushing a cart with provisions he selected Monday from the shelves of donated goods for his holiday meal at his East Islip home. The 45-year-old veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan said he would “pray to God to help me to keep my family together, and to enjoy that day.”
Tens of thousands of turkeys, donated frozen and distributed for free, will take center stage Thursday on the tables of Long Island families who otherwise might do without. Despite a robust stock market and continued low unemployment, families grappling with low wages and high expenses find themselves turning to a network of food pantries to help fill their plates.
“I think what we see now are families looking to sustain” themselves, said Jessica Rosati, LI Cares’ chief program officer. “It’s not just an emergency; they need ongoing assistance. It’s the working poor.”
Unexpected expenses brought a 40-year-old Navy veteran to the pantry Monday. Recent repairs to her car and her husband’s car cost $1,500 so, she said, motioning to the turkey in her cart, “this is huge right now.”
A photographer and teacher whose husband is an architectural engineer, she asked that her name not be used. They come to the pantry only as needed, and donate food and surplus garden vegetables when they can. “Sometimes they don’t see me for a long time,” she said, adding, “I don’t mind coming here and I really like bringing other veterans.”
Ryan Galan, pastor of the Bay Shore campus of the Centerpoint Church, said its weekly pantry sees anywhere from 10 to 30 clients, most of them working people “just struggling to make it.” This year, he said, “we’ve had over 30 families locally sign up for the Thanksgiving baskets. Last year it was 20.”
Janet Lambert, coordinator of parish outreach at St. Anne Church in Brentwood, said two generous donors, and a Boy Scout who raised money and collected food, enabled the parish pantry to provide Thanksgiving baskets to 122 families, including several from another parish where supplies had run out. She said the 45 or so families who come for food every week range from teens to elderly, and have low-paying jobs. “There are families who can’t make ends meet,” she said. “Try living on $8 or $10 an hour on Long Island.”
Paule Pachter, chief executive of LI Cares, said the food bank, which supports 575 pantries and programs on the Island with emergency food, saw an increase of almost 25 percent in demand after the recession in 2009-2010. That percentage slowly dropped in the seven years since, with some surveys estimating that about 300,000 Long Islanders get help from pantries. In the three locations where his organization directly serves clients, in Freeport, Huntington Station and Lindenhurst, and in its five mobile pantries serving homebound elderly, veterans, homeless people and schoolchildren, however, “those numbers seem to be up. Last year we served 21,000 people; this year we’re on track to do 24,000 to 25,000 people.”
Kristine Lehn, LI Cares’ chief network officer, said the organization’s donated food reached 38,000 Long Island households from October 2016 to September 2017 through the pantries and programs in its network, with 148,000 individuals, of which 57,000 were children.
So far the group has been asked by its local network of distributors for about 10,000 turkeys and been able to meet only half that demand.
Randi Shubin Dresner, president and CEO of Island Harvest Food Bank, headquartered in Bethpage, said November and December are generally its busiest time of year. “We receive 50 percent of our income over the last two months of the year, and 40 percent of the food donated from the community,” she said. “It is a time when people historically think about giving back.”
However, summer, when children are out of school and not receiving school breakfasts or lunches, also represents a period of high demand. “Our summer feeding program has completely exploded,” she said. “This summer in July and August, we distributed over 210,000 meals to about 9,000 children on Long Island.”
Five years ago, the group stopped asking local pantries for the number of turkeys they would like for Thanksgiving and Christmas distribution, because the 60,000 turkeys requested far outpaced what the food bank could provide. “In our best year we could get them between 6,000 and 10,000 so we stopped asking,” she said. But, she said, “For those families, we’ve been able to provide a good family meal like everyone else.”
So far this year, Island Harvest has distributed about 3,000 turkeys and helps about 215 agencies that actually distribute the food.
At LI Cares’ Huntington Station location, Nicole, 46, a home health aide who asked to be identified by her first name only, said: “It is hard without help. We don’t have enough money to get everything we need, but because we get help here, we have enough to have a good meal at home.”
The married mother of two said she would be cooking the Thanksgiving turkey, with rice, salads and macaroni. And for that, she said, “Thank you to everybody who helps the hungry, and God bless them.”