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Can a Long Island family eat healthily on $16 an hour?

Tynnetta Mackey, a single mother from Amityville, with

Tynnetta Mackey, a single mother from Amityville, with her two children. Credit: Newsday/Michael Cusanelli

Tynnetta Mackey makes $16 an hour, working 40 hours a week as a youth counselor. On her salary, the single mom from Amityville needs to support herself and her two children. So to supplement her job, she does side work as a makeup artist and also uses food stamps.

However, that’s not enough to raise a healthy family on Long Island, according to Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving the interests of poor and vulnerable people on Long Island. A family of four needs an annual income near $85,000 to thrive on Long Island, according to the council’s calculations.

Mackey, 26, is permitted to visit the Lindenhurst branch of Long Island Cares once a month, where she can get fresh groceries like vegetables, milk and lean proteins for free.

“I had a bad diet” before finding the pantry last year, she said. “I wouldn’t say I was buying junk food, but nonnutritious food is so much cheaper than fruits and vegetables and wholesome things.”

Mackey, who has been working on finishing her bachelor’s degree in social work at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue, is among the many Long Islanders who are considered members of the working poor.

In 2016, nearly 268,000 households on Long Island made more than the federal poverty level of $23,850 but did not make enough to cover the basic costs of living, according to the United Way of New York’s 2016 ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) report. These expenses include housing, health care, transportation, food and child care.

“These are families who are earning three times the national poverty rate, and if they have two children they just can’t cut it,” said Paule Pachter, the CEO of Long Island Cares, the region’s largest food bank.

“You can’t live on Rice Krispies and Cheerios three meals a day, nor can you survive on a can of SpaghettiOs every single day — you’re gonna get sick from it,” Pachter added.

His colleague Laura Lynn Iacono, who’s a registered dietitian at Long Island Cares, says eating healthily is crucial because it can lessen the chance of developing medical problems later in life.

“It is a proven fact that there are nutrition-related diseases, specifically cardiac disease and diabetes,” said Iacono. “In the impoverished population, that tends to be more prevalent.”

A 2014 study by nonprofit Feeding America found that 79 percent of households surveyed reported purchasing inexpensive, unhealthy food to feed their families as a way to save money. That number rises to 84 percent of respondents for those households with children.

Of the 65,000 people who visit food pantries each week on Long Island, about two-thirds are members of the working poor, according to Pachter. There are about 400 organizations on Long Island that make up the pantries and soup kitchens.

“There are a lot of times when families are in very precarious positions when they need to decide whether to pay their rent or to feed their families,” said Rebecca Sanin, president and CEO of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island. “That’s a horrifying position to be put in.”

After she began using the food bank, Mackey said she was able to begin planning healthy meals again. She had developed an unhealthy diet following the birth of her daughter in 2016 and later resigning from her job at the United States Postal Service after undergoing carpal tunnel surgery on her hand.

“What [the food bank] did is it forced me to look up healthier meals so I could utilize the items I was given,” said Mackey. “I started meal prepping and being able to eat better.”

Mackey is glad she didn’t let pride get in the way of doing the right thing for her and her children.

“People should not feel ashamed to reach out for help to organizations like Long Island Cares because that is what they do,” she said. “I wish there wasn’t this stigma.”

Long Island Cares and Island Harvest are the two largest organizations that provide aid for struggling Long Islanders. Both groups have stafffull-time nutritionists and dietitians on staff to educate patrons on the importance of eating healthily to prevent unexpected medical issues. Their services include holding free cooking demonstrations and coaching patrons on how to shop and eat on a budget.

Island Harvest is looking to expand its nutrition education policies with a program called Food Farmacy, which aims to help Long Islanders without access to nutritious foods obtain what they need to live healthier lives. The program, which is being conducted in partnership with Northwell Health, is expected to launch in April, according to Island Harvest official Allison Puglia.

“We’re not just giving people a can of food or telling them what to do, we’re teaching them what to do,” said Randi Shubin Dresner, president and CEO of Island Harvest. “That’s how we know we’re going to move the needle on hunger.”