A volunteer-run nonprofit battling food insecurity aims to crush hunger on Long Island one lasagna at a time.
Lasagna Love, a California-based nonprofit, launched at the start of the pandemic when founder Rhiannon Menn began making lasagnas to serve the needy. The grassroots group — which serves lasagnas because the meal is warm and comforting — quickly expanded to all 50 states and several countries, including a chapter on Long Island. Nationwide, Lasagna Love has served more than 100,000 meals.
The group's mission is simple: feed hungry people with lasagnas delivered to their door. About 120 volunteers across Nassau and Suffolk cook meals in their homes and serve up to 30 lasagnas each week, including at local homeless shelters, organizers said.
The meal — complete with salad, bread and dessert if the chef chooses — provides food for those who are sick with the virus, recovering from a medical procedure or are in a financial pinch. People who need meals can request them through Lasagna Love's website.
Long Island regional coordinator Lauren Chizner, 50, of Dix Hills, joined the organization in September 2020 after watching the "Today" show. When she joined, there were no more than a dozen volunteers serving the Island.
"It was just at that point in the year that I needed to do something to help others, but really what could I do? I saw it, and I thought, ‘This is something I can do,’ " she said. "I love to cook. I love helping other people. I can do this. I can make a lasagna once a week."
Food insecurity existed on Long Island even before the pandemic. More than 89,000 people in Suffolk and 93,000 in Nassau are estimated to be food insecure, according to Feeding America, a nonprofit that partners with local food pantries.
"Hunger is a problem that was here before the pandemic and it’s going to continue to be here," Chizner said.
Food banks Island Harvest and Long Island Cares also serve Long Islanders through food pantries. Island Harvest saw its food distribution numbers drastically increase, president and CEO Randi Shubin Dresner told Newsday. The nonprofit distributed food to 300,000 people annually before the pandemic, which jumped to 600,000 during the 2021 fiscal year. She estimates Long Island will see the pandemic's effect on food access for the next two years.
"There was no chance for people to prepare for how they were going to move forward with a sudden shutdown, so there will be little to no supplies available, no way to leave their homes in some cases, many people losing their jobs completely or getting furloughed or getting cut back in their hours," Shubin Dresner said of the issues Long Islanders faced throughout the pandemic.
Filling a gap on Long Island
Lasagna Love serves many repeat clients who have fallen on hard times, Chizner said. They work with Jericho Cares, a nonprofit that provides food and care packages to people who lack permanent housing.
"It’s really helping us out because we only provide nonperishable items, so canned food, toiletries and things like that," said Jericho Cares president Fran O’Connor, who founded the nonprofit in August 2020.
Each week, volunteers with Lasagna Love bake 20 lasagnas that Jericho Cares distributes to people living in Jericho-based motels and train stations.
"They don’t have stoves," O’Connor said. "They don’t get many home cooked meals. … We take it for granted. We have one probably every night."
Vallerie Masson relies on the weekly lasagna to feed her family. They have lacked a permanent residence for four years and struggle to find affordable housing.
She lives in a motel in Jericho with her three children. Each week, her children, ages 8, 4 and 2, peek out the window in anticipation for their weekly homemade meal to arrive.
The family has a tight budget and relies on help from social services, but sometimes that’s not enough, the 31-year-old mother said. The lasagnas are often the only hot meal the family eats each week since they don't have access to a stove, which forces them to rely on snacks and junk food to fill their stomachs. A local church also provides food, she said.
"It really helps us a lot," she said. "When we get the hot food every week, it’s a blessing for us."