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Huge need for Thanksgiving food donations

Pat Westlake, director of the Smithtown Emergency Food

Pat Westlake, director of the Smithtown Emergency Food Pantry in Smithtown, stands near empty bins that would normally be full of food for distribution for Thanksgiving. (Nov. 15, 2012) Credit: Ed Betz

With more families in crisis and donations down, Long Island food pantries and relief volunteers are going into overdrive to provide Thanksgiving meals, especially for residents struggling in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy.

"Now our agencies are reporting that they have not just their regular amount of people that are coming for food support, but the numbers are increasing dramatically," said Randi Shubin Dresner, president and CEO of Island Harvest, the nonprofit organization and food bank that collects and distributes food to 570 local soup kitchens and food pantries.

To meet that need, hundreds of volunteers from groups big and small in Nassau and Suffolk counties have responded with food drives, donation collections and free community meals.

The owner of a Rockville Centre auto-body shop purchased more than $100,000 in food to be given away. Cheerleaders in South Huntington made baskets for distribution to those in need. Restaurants and catering halls in some of the hardest-hit communities, such as Lindenhurst, Massapequa and Long Beach, are offering free Thanksgiving meals and expect thousands to be served.


Storm intensifies efforts

Drives to provide holiday meals occur each year before Thanksgiving. This year, though, organizers said the effort intensified. Some food pantries suffered damage during the storm or had to restock hurriedly because of spoilage caused by power outages.

The Smithtown Emergency Food Pantry, made up of seven churches, lost about $200 worth of frozen juice and frozen vegetables when the power went out, director Pat Westlake said. Luckily, the staff salvaged a large supply of chicken because "someone took it into their home and used some of their generator power to run the freezer," she said.

Officials with The INN, a Hempstead-based nonprofit organization that has 16 soup kitchens in 22 locations across the Island, reported that many of their soup kitchens lost power and had to throw out many items.

The INN is struggling to have enough for its usual donation efforts, let alone the extra needed for Thanksgiving, spokeswoman Cynthia Sucich said.

"The people that are normally the donors are now the people that are in need," she said.

Island Harvest is continuing its "Turkey and Trimmings" collection campaign for people who usually are in need of food to celebrate the holiday season in November and December. Each year, the nonprofit distributes 10,000 to 15,000 turkeys during the season, Dresner said.

"This year we're concerned, because those people still need holiday food, but we're in emergency relief mode," she said. "If we don't do well this year in receiving turkeys, that means potentially 10,000 to 15,000 families won't have holiday food."

Paule Pachter, executive director of Long Island Cares, said the organization has seen a slight uptick in need.

"Right now, we at Long Island Cares have ample food in the warehouse, so that nobody should go hungry," Pachter said.


Community groups help

Community groups and local businesses have stepped in to help, too.

In a drive that Walt Whitman High School cheerleaders helped organize, 25 cheerleader squads from across the Island gathered Wednesday at the high school to pack and distribute baskets of food. The effort is an annual one, but this year household items were added to baskets to be given directly to those affected by the storm, said Lisa Spatafora-Lessa, varsity cheer coach.

Robert Jesberger, the owner of Mid-Island Collision in Rockville Centre, has purchased at least $150,000 worth of food himself to be packed by volunteers and sent to storm-ravaged areas.

"We have drives throughout the year, probably on a daily basis, and the big ones are the holidays," Jesberger said. "Thanksgiving is a big one, which has become humongous because of the Sandy situation."

This is the sixth year that Manor East, a Massapequa catering hall, has held a free Thanksgiving dinner for families in need.

Owner Richard Bivona said the dinner typically serves 1,500 to 2,500 people. But because of Sandy, the group plans to feed about 4,500 people.

"It's been very, very, very busy," he said. "The phone lines have been going crazy."

The Long Beach location of Swingbelly's BBQ restaurant was severely damaged in the storm. That has not stopped owner Sean Sullivan, who also has a Lynbrook location, from putting together a free holiday meal for at least 2,000 people at the Long Beach recreation center's ice arena. "So many people have lost everything that they have," Sullivan said. "And to see the look on somebody's face when you provide them with a hot meal -- that is what I know how to do."


Knights to host dinner

In hard-hit Lindenhurst, where the storm surge swallowed homes and submerged streets, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Knights of Columbus Council No. 794 will host a dinner at their hall.

"We are in very close proximity to the destruction of the South Shore, and there are a lot of people, including some of our members, who have been wiped out completely," council member Ron Higgins said. "We feel if we can provide a peaceful dinner on Thanksgiving, and it would take their problems off their shoulders for an hour or two, we are going to shoot for it."

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