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LI Food Not Bombs offers free vegetarian food shares

Catherine Crawford, of Massapequa Park, far right, is

Catherine Crawford, of Massapequa Park, far right, is a volunteer with Food Not Bombs. Here, she helps with food distribution at the food share in Hempstead on March 31, 2013. Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

There was a marked chill in the air on a recent Thursday evening at the traffic triangle on Horseblock Road and Granny Road in Farmingville. But two words describe the people in line and the items they were in line for: plentiful and bright.

Dozens of Long Islanders in need waited to share in a bounty saved and delivered just for them:

Fresh vegetables, including red and green peppers, potatoes, onions, prepackaged lettuce mix, eggplants and zucchini.

Dairy products, including organic milk and eggs.

Gallon-size bags bursting with artisan and organic sliced breads and ciabatta rolls, cookies and muffins.

Boxes and boxes of apples and bananas.

All of it good, consumable food. Over 10,000 pounds of it. All of it intended for the Dumpster.

But it was rescued from that fate by Long Island Food Not Bombs, a vegetarian food share program that feeds the needy. Unlike Island Harvest and Long Island Cares, the organization doesn't bank food; instead, its network of several thousand monthly volunteers collects it from specialty stores such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe's -- much of it organic food that is near its expiration date and legally required to be tossed out -- and delivers it on designated days to the group's share sites in Farmingville, Hempstead, Huntington Station and Wyandanch (there is a fifth food share site in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and a Coram site that focuses on homeless outreach).

There, volunteers set up the food on long tables and share it, along with fresh flowers, used clothing, books, seeds, toys and school supplies, with anyone who wants it. No money is ever exchanged. Social service agencies are not involved. No one on the food line is asked for documentation, their name or income.

In fact, "no questions asked" seems to be the mantra of Long Island Food Not Bombs.

That may explain why three Ecuadoran women waiting in line in Farmingville glanced hesitatingly at each other when a stranger asked how long they had been coming here, on Thursday evenings at 7, for their weekly food.

"Tres años," one of them finally responded softly, in Spanish. For three years, she's been coming to this location once a week, she said, because her paycheck isn't enough to feed her family.

She's part of a community that helps the nonprofit uphold an important aspect of its principles, one of which eschews hierarchy. The group has no formal leaders and decisions are made by consensus.

"The best way to describe our mission is to say that we believe food is a right, not a privilege," said Long Island Food Not Bombs leader Jon Stepanian, 30, who prefers instead to be thought of as its cheerleader because of the organization's founding truths. "That philosophy has three principles: share free vegetarian food; all decisions are made with a consensus; promote peace."


Peaceful beginning

A group of anti-nuclear activists started Food Not Bombs in 1980 in Cambridge, Mass., to protest the Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant north of Boston in New Hampshire. The original organizers shared their first full meal outside the Federal Reserve Bank on March 26, 1981, during the Bank of Boston's stockholders meeting to protest the exploitation of capitalism and investment in the nuclear industry. For nearly two decades, Long Island was home to several chapters of the grassroots movement, but by 2005, all had disbanded.

The Long Island chapter was revived in June 2006, just a month after Stepanian, a Lloyd Harbor resident, graduated from Fordham University with a degree in history and political science. He said he had heard of the movement while growing up and liked its philosophy -- social change through peace -- so he wanted to be a part of it. Alex Witcowski was one of the buddies who started Long Island Food Not Bombs with Stepanian. He remained with the group for a couple of years before he moved on.

Back then, "We were just a few volunteers, college friends," Stepanian said, all looking for full-time employment. With time on their hands, on Sundays they began collecting donated bread from grocery stores, setting it up on a folding table at the Long Island Rail Road station in Hempstead and giving it away for free.

Word of mouth spread quickly.

"We were the vegan kids with a table of food for a while," Stepanian said. "As people realized we'd always be there every Sunday, crowds began to grow. That's how it all started."

Pretty soon, the hobby reached a crossroads. "There was a point, about a year in, when we realized we needed more food," he said. "The number of people who showed up each Sunday kept growing."

According to Hauppauge-based Long Island Cares, the Harry Chapin Food Bank, which supports 590 member agencies with food and grants helping more than 320,000 people annually (including 110,000 children), Long Island's hungry represent nearly 11 percent of the region's population.

Each week, Long Island Food Not Bombs feeds between 3,000 and 3,500 people, depending on the location of its food shares. Some sites feed a few hundred, while the largest tops 1,000 at times, Stepanian said.

In addition to the shares, volunteers deliver sandwiches and other food to homeless people living in the woods in Nassau and Suffolk, and Stepanian makes vegan meals for the Hempstead share. He said the food is nutritionally balanced and includes gluten-free options. Meals also are offered at the group's other food share locations to mark holidays or special events.

The shares leave a strong first impression on some. Stony Brook resident Melissa Hebenstreit, 30, a Stony Brook University graduate with a degree in anthropology, is a barista at a local Starbucks. Last July, she saw a listing for Long Island Food Not Bombs on Craigslist and went to one of the food shares to check the group out. She stood in line and received food.

"I was blown away," Hebenstreit said. "I didn't expect it to be as large as it is. There's so much variety and things are run so well. There was a sense of community. Everyone wanted to help each other."

So she went back the following week with bags of freshly picked apples from a friend's backyard. Hebenstreit is now a regular volunteer, picking up donated food from various Whole Foods on Tuesdays for delivery in Huntington Station and Thursdays for the Farmingville share.


Store donations make shares possible

The retailers who donate their leftovers make it possible for Long Island Food Not Bombs to do what it does.

"We try to do what we can as sustainably as possible and know a lot of our food doesn't get sold," said Mandy Li, marketing team leader at Whole Foods Market in Jericho. "So we're happy to help out. . . . We're glad it can go somewhere before it goes to the garbage."

That store alone donated more than 582,000 pounds of food to Long Island Food Not Bombs last year.

Stepanian said the group, which is officially filed as a nonprofit under the name Community Solidarity, has 172 scheduled monthly donors (stores) in the network.

"Some stores have us pick up daily, some weekly, monthly, some on a call basis," he said.

Managing the group's core of volunteers and its food donations is an undertaking in and of itself. And now there's an app for that.

Stepanian created it to organize the volunteer schedule and keep track of the volume of groceries Long Island Food Not Bombs collects and distributes. While the exact number is still being evaluated, Stepanian said, last year the nonprofit collected roughly 1.9 million pounds of food. The app also calculates the nutritional value of the food in terms of vitamins and calories.

"By monitoring this information, we're able to actually track the health benefits our food brings to a community," Stepanian said. "Healthier foods mean less heart disease, obesity, lower cancer rates."

Lou Mazzei, 43, of West Babylon, has been volunteering with Long Island Food Not Bombs for about 18 months and is impressed by Stepanian's organizational skills.

"Jon covers it head to toe, every aspect of it," said Mazzei, who works in the city for a heating and air-conditioning company. About three times a month, Mazzei drives to Trader Joe's and Whole Foods in Lake Grove and collects donations for the Farmingville share. There, every Thursday night, cars or vans filled to the brim with boxes and bags of donated food pull up to the triangle, and on cue, volunteers and those in need scurry to help unload them.

On this particular evening, the bounty includes several bags of colorful, bunched flowers. As a mother and daughter walked off with their food selections, the mother glanced back longingly at the blooms.

It was almost Easter, so she returned to the table and quickly grabbed a bouquet of tulips, a smile spreading across her face as she and her daughter headed home.


Find a food share

Farmingville: 7 p.m. Thursdays, Horseblock Road & Woodycrest Drive or Granny Road

Hempstead: 2 p.m. Sundays, West Columbia Street and Station Plaza (across from LIRR station)

Huntington Station: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, East 6th Street and Fairground Avenue

Wyandanch: Noon Saturdays, 1556 Straight Path (outside MLK Jr. Health Center)

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