Georgette Jackson, left, a worker at RISE food pantry in Riverhead,...

Georgette Jackson, left, a worker at RISE food pantry in Riverhead, helps Diane Wiles, of Mastic Beach, select produce and other foods for her family on July 27.  Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Julie Nava’s eyes lit up as she spotted the fresh cabbage, sweet potatoes and carrots on the shelf of RISE food pantry in Riverhead. Nava, 72, who hails from the Philippines, said she needs fresh produce to make the cuisine of her native country.

“I really appreciate it,” she said on a recent weekday of the produce and the pantry. “When you don’t have a job, you can be starving.”  

Food banks and pantries across Long Island are reporting record increases in the number of residents seeking food this year, which they attribute to rising inflation. Hauppauge-based nonprofit Long Island Cares Inc. said it has seen a 52% increase in clients at its five satellite food pantries from January to June over the same period last year. 

But even as the organizations struggle to stock shelves with canned goods, pantries have been trying to include more fresh produce in their offerings. This summer the labor shortage, high fuel prices and poor weather in the spring have led to a slow start.

JoAnn Vitale, operations director for RISE food pantry, said the need for food has been so great that people start lining up two hours before they open. Vitale said she has seen a 20% increase in recent months in visits to the pantry, which serves 300 to 350 families monthly.  

When fresh produce is available, it quickly disappears, she said, with $1,000 worth of spinach recently gone in a day.

“People would rather have better quality, fresh things,” Vitale said last week.

Long Island Cares Inc. and Island Harvest, a nonprofit based in Melville, have been sending RISE some produce, she said, but local farms have not been able to get them what they have in the past.

“So far this year, we haven’t had much,” Vitale said. She added that local farmers informed her that the growing season has not been good due to the cold, wet spring.

“Some of the things that they were growing initially got destroyed,” she said. 

Weather hasn’t been the only problem, farmers said.

“Our biggest bottleneck is the logistics,” said John Zilnicki, 34, owner of Zilnicki Farms in Riverhead. “We’re short-staffed as it is with farming, so getting produce to and from the food pantries is difficult.”

Supply-chain issues for equipment means operations are “one breakdown away from being held up,” Zilnicki said, “which is kind of a scary thing.”

Bob LaBarbara, chief procurement and supply-chain officer for Long Island Cares, said the food bank has been experiencing ordering delays and extended shipping times.

“It’s not that we’re not getting it, we’re just not getting it at the frequency that we would like to see it,” he said Thursday. “We were told that’s the number one thing our agencies want to see more of is fresh produce.”

Randi Shubin Dresner, president and CEO of Island Harvest, said Thursday that the agency is experiencing its own labor shortage in the form of drivers to pick up and deliver the produce.

“Trucking is a huge problem,” she said. “All those corporations can pay higher wages than we can.”

Farmers said peak harvesting is just starting and they hope to soon get more produce, such as corn and tomatoes, into the food pantries.

“It’s a good relationship,” said Ian Calder-Piedmonte, 42, owner of Balsam Farms in Amagansett. “We get to cover the cost of harvesting and we get the food to people who need it.”

LONG ISLAND'S HUNGRY

Food-insecure Long Islanders as of June 2022: 250,000 residents, 67,000 of whom are children.

Amount of food distributed by Long Island Cares Inc. per year: 10 million pounds

Seniors served in Long Island Cares Inc. pantries in 2021: 16,100

Veterans served in Long Island Cares Inc. pantries in 2021: 1,595

Source: Long Island Cares Inc.

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