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Nassau's biggest food pantry braces for budget cut, possible closure

Mark Fernandez, of Oceanside, sorts food supplies on

Mark Fernandez, of Oceanside, sorts food supplies on Oct. 28, 2014, at the food pantry in Freeport. Photo Credit: Johnny Milano

The largest food pantry in Nassau County says it may close its doors because of proposed funding cuts county lawmakers are expected to vote on Wednesday.

Nassau plans to slash its annual contribution to the Long Island Council of Churches' Freeport pantry from $100,000 to $50,000 starting Jan. 1 -- the second cut in three years. The county had contributed $129,000 a year, dating back to the pantry's founding 30 years ago.

Unless needed funding materializes soon, "we'll have to do something drastic like close the pantry," said Tom Goodhue, the council's executive director. "We're already running on such a shoestring that it's hard to see other options."

The pantry, at 450 N. Main St., serves about 1,400 low-income people a month, Goodhue said, but this month it's on track to set a record by helping more than 1,600. That's due, in part, to the housing crisis and cuts in government benefits such as long-term unemployment coverage, Goodhue said.

The council has a budget of $774,000 to run the Freeport pantry, a smaller one in Hempstead and another one in Riverhead. It receives other funding from churches, businesses and foundations.

Nassau is maintaining the $100,000 it contributes annually to food pantry services, but it will be diverting half the money next year to two other nonprofits that mostly provide food to pantries -- Long Island Cares and Island Harvest -- said Department of Social Services Commissioner John E. Imhof.

The legislature is scheduled to vote on its 2015-16 budget Wednesday.

Imhof said the county wants to make pantries more accessible in other parts of Nassau.

"The council's Freeport pantry has done a wonderful job, but given their limited weekday hours, countywide we need to reach a much larger number of food pantries collectively open seven days and evenings a week," he said in a statement.

"A weekday operation cannot reach the many working poor who need evening and weekend access to food pantries throughout Nassau County to supplement their families' food supplies," he said.

Goodhue said few of the dozens of pantries in Nassau operate at night or on weekends, and the move would probably result in helping fewer, not more people. "I don't see how eliminating funding for the biggest pantry in the county is going to help them spread things out better," he said.

Long Island Cares and Long Island Harvest are primarily distribution agencies that bring food to pantries but generally do not run their own facilities, Goodhue said.

Paule T. Pachter, chief executive of Long Island Cares, said he was unaware the new county funding promised his organization would be deducted from money that had been earmarked for the church council. His group runs a small pantry in Freeport and plans to devote most of the county money to it.

"There is no question I am concerned that the money would be transferred from Long Island Council of Churches to other organizations," Pachter said Tuesday.

Randi Shubin Dresner, Island Harvest's president, admires the council's work and said it's "uncomfortable" for groups with the same goal to compete for funding.If the council's pantry closes, Goodhue said many of the people being served will have to seek help from the Department of Social Services.

"Imagine what it is going to be like when 1,500 angry people come back to them," he said.

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