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Smithtown food pantry limits hours, shifts focus during pandemic

The Smithtown Emergency Food Pantry, which closed for reorganizing in mid-September, will reopen in October with new hours and new protocols for delivering food to the needy. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Smithtown’s Emergency Food Pantry will limit its hours and shift its focus to prepacked foods under a plan to operate safely during the pandemic, director Patricia Westlake said.

In the past, groups of volunteers staffed the parish house at St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church on Edgewater Avenue five days a week. As many as 20 people worked in the crowded office and basement storeroom stocking donations that came in by the shopping cart or truckload. Clients browsed the shelves as they would a supermarket. Some lingered to talk and those chats — about matters small and weighty — were "a big part of the ministry," said Westlake in an interview last week.

But many of her volunteers are in their 70s and 80s and vulnerable to a disease that killed her own brother, David Westlake, at the Long Island State Veterans Home in Stony Brook in the spring. Leaders of St. Thomas, trying to keep their own staff and parishioners safe, have imposed safety restrictions, said Westlake, a retired elementary and middle school teacher from St. James who has run the pantry for 12 years.

The pantry closed for cleaning and reorganization last week and will reopen in October, running Tuesdays and Thursdays. Food will still get distributed but there will be no more browsing and only a few volunteers will work at any time, handing boxes of food, cleaning supplies and other items to clients in their cars. Fellowship will take place through car windows and over the phone.

Some of Long Island’s larger food banks have seen a staggering increase in need during the pandemic. Paule Pachter, chief executive of Hauppauge-based Long Island Cares, said in an interview that over the past six months his organization has served 109,764 people who had never needed help from the food bank before, delivering 42.4% more meals than the same period last year. About 259,000 Long Islanders are food insecure, Pachter said; he estimates that number will grow by another 50,000 in coming months.

Smithtown’s pantry serves about 130 families a month, almost all from the town or adjacent communities, and Westlake said demand has not shot up. The pandemic and the economic crisis have brought new clients, though. They are waitresses at catering halls and restaurants, school monitors and department store clerks. Some are new to the area, having moved to take care of relatives. A few had the disease, or had family who had.

"It’s sad we can’t do for our clients what we did," Westlake said. "I can’t have truckloads of food coming in." "We used to put together 150 Thanksgiving baskets — we can’t do that this year." But the pantry will be open and it will be stocked, she said. "No one should ever be turned away that comes here for help."

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