Food is stacked inside St. John's Bread of Life Food...

Food is stacked inside St. John's Bread of Life Food Pantry in Manhattan in November. Credit: Craig Ruttle

Hundreds of thousands of Long Islanders have gone hungry over the last year, as unemployment and underemployment rippled through the region. And hundreds of thousands of children across the Island who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals are heading into summer, when there is no school structure to ensure they have the food they need.

Food banks and numerous organizations, large and small, have been attempting to help. Besides Long Island Cares and Island Harvest, the region's two largest food pantries, advocacy groups like No Kid Hungry have provided emergency grants and ways for families to find assistance, like a texting service that quickly points residents to nearby meals. Then there are the smaller-scale efforts that have become critical over the last year, like nonprofits that coordinate residents who gather food donations from supermarkets and distribute them to those in need.

But none of that is enough. According to recent data from Long Island Cares, 348,192 Long Islanders experience food insecurity now, a 60% increase over 2019. According to No Kid Hungry, 176,728 Long Island students qualified for free or reduced price meals at school, which meant they also received last year's first pandemic emergency benefit transfer, or PEBT — a supplemental payment meant for food that provided $420 to all who qualified.

The state approved a second payment in April, but the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance hasn't provided the funds to those in need, yet. It's unfortunately still unclear when that will happen; state officials say more information will come soon. Timing is crucial. The coming end to the school year will bring more uncertainty for families who have to figure out their daily meals. The pandemic assistance helps a lot, and the state has to provide it soon or, at least, issue a timetable so Long Island families know when the aid will arrive. Also helpful: extra monthly benefits, which the state began in March 2020, specifically for recipients of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Those should continue.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo can do his part for hungry families, too, by signing a bill approved by the State Senate and State Assembly that would allow restaurants to opt in to participating in SNAP. The legislation would permit seniors who receive SNAP benefits, along with those who are disabled or homeless, to use those benefits at restaurants that choose to opt in.

The hunger crisis our region has experienced since the start of the pandemic isn't over yet. There are still far too many vulnerable families, who may not know where to turn. No single food bank, volunteer program or state benefit can solve the problem. But a combination of all of those options, and an effort by the state to train a larger spotlight on the issue, can help.

And if you need assistance, or know someone who does, text FOOD to 877-877, which will provide you with summer meal locations and information about SNAP eligibility.

— The editorial board