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Babylon food pantry says shortage critical

As managers of one of the increasing number of struggling food pantries on Long Island, Babylon officials have announced a critical shortage at the town's food pantry, where dozens of hungry residents visit each day but stores of pasta, peanut butter and frozen vegetables are dwindling.

"URGENT!" began a plea for food donations officials posted on the town website, in block capital letters, late last month.

"It's pretty frightening to see the number of people who come," said Madeline A. Bayton, the town's Human Services commissioner, in an interview this week.

Experts say the predicament is familiar: Demand at pantries across the region increases when school feeding programs end for the summer, just as donations from individuals, clubs and school groups drop.

"Most of the food pantries across Long Island are struggling," said Randi Shubin Dresner, president and chief executive of Island Harvest, a food bank that supplies 570 Long Island food pantries, soup kitchens, and other nonprofit organizations feeding 300,000 people a year. "There's just not as much food in the system."

Gregory Blass, commissioner of Suffolk County's Department of Social Services, said that demand has spiked this summer at the nine food pantries his department runs. "We hear the same thing from contacts in the nonprofit community, including church parish outreach and soup kitchens," he said. "They're inundated: they've got lines like they've never had before."

Also troubling, he said, is recent survey data suggesting that up to 60 percent of clients are first-time visitors.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated 12.9 percent of households in New York had experienced food "insecurity" over the period of 2008-2010, meaning there were times they did not have enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle for all family members.

Welfare rolls on Long Island are swelling due to to a sluggish regional economy. Since 2007, food stamp recipients have grown by 148 percent in Suffolk, to 53,400, and by 145 percent in Nassau, to 32,800.

"The issue is that hunger on Long Island is becoming chronic," said Paule Pachter, executive director for Long Island Cares, a food bank.

Increasingly, he said, the region's hungry rely on pantries such as Babylon's to fill the role of the supermarket, not as emergency resources for which they were intended.

In Babylon, the Census Bureau estimates that 2,847 residents, 4.1 percent of the population, receive food stamps or federal food assistance.

Officials there have come to expect a seasonal dip in donations to the food pantry. But this year, donations are off 80 percent, Bayton said, with about 500 items left.

Residents are limited to one visit per month to the food pantry. If the rules allowed more, she said, there wouldn't be enough food on hand for the pantry to function.

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