Food pantry volunteer Diane Butler works at St. Paul's Episcopal...

Food pantry volunteer Diane Butler works at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Patchogue last week. Credit: Sylvia E. King-Cohen

At St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Patchogue, Diane Butler welcomed customers into a small pantry in a former Sunday school room.

“Good morning!” she told a pregnant mother and her young daughter entering the pantry, before guiding them down aisles where they chose items such as soup, diapers and strawberry jelly.

By the end of their stroll through the pantry that day, the family left with a large bag of groceries and a felt sewing whale toy for the young girl. They were soon followed by another person waiting at the door and then others. They came from all walks of life, but each was in need of basic staples.

In Suffolk County, residents are searching out places such as RISE Life Services pantries in Patchogue and Riverhead, as food insecurity in the region remains an issue — fueled in part by factors such as inflation and the region’s high cost of living.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • In Suffolk County, residents are searching out RISE Life Services pantries in Patchogue and Riverhead as food insecurity in the region remains an issue.
  • Food pantries seek to fill the gap, but many  are facing a downturn in donations.
  • While Suffolk has areas of wealth, it also has pockets with people who find it hard to purchase basic necessities.

RISE Life Services seeks to fill the gap, expanding to Patchogue just recently, but many food banks are facing a downturn in donations.

“So, [with] the demand, plus … the pandemic and with the cost of living going up so high, people don't have the money they used to,” said Charles Evdos, an executive director at RISE Life Services.

In turn, he added in a later interview, “They have less money to donate.”

RISE Life Services helps residents with developmental and other disabilities get life training, but key to the organization’s mission is addressing food insecurity in Suffolk County. The organization also wants to open a location in Southampton or the Hamptons soon and get a food truck.

While Suffolk has areas of wealth, the county also has a sizable number of people facing difficulties getting the bare necessities, Evdos said.

Average cost of meal up

In 2022, the number of county residents who were food insecure was roughly 123,700, according to Feeding America. The average cost of a meal in the county in 2022 was $4.66, up from $3.46 in 2017, the organization said.

Those trends are trickling down to RISE Life Services, which had a 300% increase in people using their food assistance over the past two years. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it also has seen a nearly 50% decline in donations, going from about $500,000 annually to around $260,000. To make up for the difference and still serve the community, the organization has had to funnel funds from other operations to the pantries.

But that can only go so far, organization officials warned. “If it continues — the downward spin — it’s going to be a problem,” he said.

At the Patchogue food bank last week, people in need could take advantage of a shower truck parked by the church. Inside the facility, a soup kitchen was filled with people, some of whom also made their way to the pantry. 

The aisles were stacked with items such as canned green beans, mixed vegetables and soups. There’s also a section for personal items such as soaps and another area with frozen meats. Volunteers, some of whom are disabled, helped people work their way through the pantry.

A lot of moving parts

Ronald Pineda-Figueroa, 27, of Hampton Bays, helped tell people what meats they could choose in English and Spanish. He said working in the food banks makes him feel like he is caring for loved ones.

“I meet people,” he said. “And I feel … like some people are my friends, my cousins or my nieces.”

Behind the scenes, Butler, the Patchogue resident who helps run the pantry, says operating the pantry is a five-day effort. Volunteers get food donations by making pickups throughout the week at places such as Island Harvest, Long Island Cares and Stop & Shop.

“There’s a lot of moving parts to keep this food pantry stocked,” she said, later noting “the stuff doesn’t just magically show up.”

Despite the obstacles, the Patchogue pantry is operating, for now, helping people like Anaida Rivera, who perused the aisles last week.

Rivera, who lives in Patchogue, said she seeks out the pantry’s services because the aid she gets from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program sometimes does not cover a full month of food expenses. Rivera gets about $175 from the program formerly known as food stamps. 

Coming to the food pantry allows her to pay for gasoline for her vehicle and offset the higher food costs brought on by inflation.

It “will help me get by,” Rivera said.

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