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Nonprofits stretch efforts to keep hunger at bay as COVID-19 spreads

Jon Stepanian, president and CEO of nonprofit Community

Jon Stepanian, president and CEO of nonprofit Community Solidarity, which distributes surplus food to the needy, said his group saw "a large uptick" in food requests at the end of March.   Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Nonprofits around Long Island that collect food for the needy that would otherwise go to waste are working overtime with strained staffs and opening satellite offices amid a COVID-19 outbreak that is forcing them to do more to meet rising demand for their services.

Jon Stepanian, president and CEO of nonprofit Community Solidarity, which retrieves surplus grocery items and produce from farms, restaurants and supermarkets to redistribute to low-income individuals and families, said his group saw “a large uptick” in food requests at the end of March.

Community Solidarity’s volunteers set up food stations — or tables with fruits, vegetables, bread, prepared meals, frozen foods, desserts and vegan meals — for about 5,700 people weekly in Wyandanch, Farmingville, Hempstead, Huntington Station and Brooklyn before the pandemic began. The nonprofit now has fewer volunteers to help with deliveries and collections since many of its volunteers are 50 and older, a population more susceptible to the virus. 

With supermarkets bringing in more quantities of food weekly, excess is left over from mistakes or overestimation of demand on items such as strawberries and asparagus, which Stepanian said his group has gotten a surplus of in the past week.

“It’s a lot more to lift, a lot more people to help, and a lot more work for us to do,” Stepanian said.

Stepanian said the nonprofit has been stepping up its safety procedures, including making premade boxes for groceries, and keeping at least 20 feet of distance between those it serves and its volunteers.

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Syd Mandelbaum, founder of Rock And Wrap It Up!, a Cedarhurst anti-poverty think tank that collects leftover food from concerts and sporting events, and then redistributes it to people such as military veterans and underprivileged individuals, said the organization had picked up thousands of pounds of food since March from Madison Square Garden and MetLife Stadium.

He said the demand from families they serve has also tripled.

“Once people go on unemployment, they get really, really nervous about using their own resources,” Mandelbaum said, adding that the nonprofit’s staff has been putting in extra hours to keep up with its services.

Cathy Demeroto, of Community Action Southold Town Inc. (CAST), which collects sandwiches, produce and other food from local vendors and partnering restaurants, said Tuesday the nonprofit has seen four times the normal demand from individuals and families.

In response, CAST has been ramping up food purchasing, opened two additional satellite locations for families to pick up food, and is working with local restaurants to provide free takeout meals to its clients. The agency’s weekly food expenses have risen from $1,200 to $6,000, Demeroto said. To help offset costs, a GoFundMe campaign has raised $50,000, and there have been other community donations.

“The local community has really come together to support us, but my concern is that as this extends for months as opposed to weeks if we’ll be able to sustain that with the growing need,” Demeroto said.

On the South Fork, Kate Fullam, of East End Institute in Amagansett, said that to adjust to increased demand, the institute — which collects surplus produce via partnerships among farmers and food producers on the East End — is preparing its storage space to house additional food for redistribution. The group plans future fundraising to purchase equipment to help process produce faster with the available staff they have.

“We’re really trying to keep expectations manageable so that we can be available when it’s needed,” Fullam said. “In this time, we’re trying to take care of one another so we can keep everybody healthy.”

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