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East Hampton food pantry faces ouster from senior complex

Claudine Michel, left, from East Hampton, is helped

Claudine Michel, left, from East Hampton, is helped by volunteer and food pantry client Karl Rosenberg, as she collects food at the East Hampton Food Pantry in East Hampton, Aug. 2, 2016. The food pantry is scrambling to find a new location after it recently learned it is being evicted from its space at a low income senior housing development. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

A nonprofit East Hampton senior housing group is planning to eject a food pantry from one of its buildings at the end of the year, leading some pantry clients to worry about getting enough to eat if a new location isn’t found.

The weekly East Hampton Food Pantry has stored and distributed food for 12 years out of a common building in a complex run by Windmill Housing Development Fund Co., which manages 127 federally subsidized apartments, primarily for low-income people 62 and older.

About 100 individuals and families — including 60 Windmill Housing residents — use the pantry year-round, with the number spiking to 300 in winter, when seasonal housekeepers, waitstaff, landscapers and others have little or no work, said pantry board chairwoman Vicki Littman.

On Tuesday, Lana Jessen, 70, was loading bags of fruit and vegetables, milk, canned beans and pasta into a shopping cart for herself and five fellow residents too frail to walk to the community building and too reliant on relatively small Social Security payments to pay for all of their own food.

“If you live on $500 or $600 a month, you’ll understand how hard it is to get food,” said Jessen, who is upset with Windmill’s plans.

Rosa Guiracocha, 40, an Ecuadorean immigrant, said in Spanish after walking a mile from her East Hampton home to the pantry with her 2-year-old daughter that her husband, a carpenter and painter, sometimes goes weeks or months without work and often can’t afford to feed his family.

Forty-five residents and 42 other clients have signed a petition asking for the Windmill board to keep the pantry on-site, said resident and pantry client Pat Knight.

Gerry Mooney, who co-manages the apartments, said the Windmill board supports the pantry but believes it detracts from the group’s mission of senior housing.

“It’s a big operation, and the board really felt it was becoming too much,” said Mooney, referring to the increase in pantry clients over the past 12 years.

Windmill would either transport residents to a future pantry location or bring food back to them, and a Wednesday delivery of fresh vegetables by a different group would continue, he said.

A satellite winter distribution point at a complex three miles away would stay, he said.

Windmill may use the pantry’s basement storage area for gym equipment and hold exercise classes and movie nights on the first floor, where food is distributed, Mooney said.

Several residents said they and most other seniors wouldn’t be able to navigate the wooden stairs into the basement even if they had the physical ability to use workout equipment. The community room already is available for events and classes when the pantry isn’t there, but few activities are programmed, they said.

Resident and food-pantry client Lois Watts, 65, supports the move. Watts, who said she has a car to get to a new location and looks forward to exercise classes, said the focus of Windmill should be on seniors and the disabled.

East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said he is dismayed by the predicament of the pantry, which he called “critically important.”

“I’m hoping a Good Samaritan who has space will come forward to help feed the poor,” he said.

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