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Business can help fight hunger

Photo Credit: Donna Grethen Illustration/

Gregory J. Blass is the commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Social Services. John Imhof is the commissioner of the Nassau County Department of Social Services.


Finally, awareness is growing that poverty and hunger are not just third-world problems. Nor are they limited in the United States to poor urban neighborhoods or rural regions such as Appalachia. There is growing poverty and hunger right here on suburban Long Island.

There are currently more than 2,400 homeless Long Islanders living in county contracted shelters - over 1,200 of them children. More than 250,000 Long Islanders have been served by local food pantries this year alone. Between 2005 and 2010, the application rate for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) has increased by 113 percent in Nassau County and 93 percent in Suffolk. Islandwide, it's expected to increase another 30 percent by the end of the year.

Ensuring access for our most vulnerable populations - including the poor, children, the disabled and elderly - to adequate food and nutrition certainly stands as one of the fundamental roles of government. But we are extremely concerned for those working families who earn more than the federal eligibility standard for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but also have no health coverage and struggle to pay for their rents or mortgages, home heating fuel, utilities, taxes and transportation. There's too little left for food.

Federal eligibility and poverty guidelines are out of date and out of touch, making too many struggling Long Island families ineligible for food assistance or any of the other federal poverty assistance programs. For SNAP eligibility, a family of four cannot earn more than $2,389 in gross monthly income or $1,838 in net income. That doesn't go very far on Long Island.

A national poverty standard that ignores the cost of living for high-cost areas such as Long Island is federal government failure at its worst. Establishing regional poverty level determinations makes far more sense than a national determination that grossly underestimates our local and most minimal cost of living. Comparing poverty in the rural South, Midwest or even upstate New York to suburban Long Island tragically morphs every day into an excuse for unresponsive policies on too many fronts.

In our roles at the counties' Departments of Social Services, we are too keenly aware of the need for more food assistance for the struggling working and underemployed families of our region. For those who are eligible, we ensure timely application determinations and for those who are not, we provide referrals to nonprofit agencies that can help with food and other emergency expenses. The current economic conditions have placed great stress on our nonprofit partners - too many in need find no help.

With the support of county executives Steve Levy and Edward Mangano, our departments cooperate to compensate for the federal government's inadequate funding for our region. We've reached out to the local school districts to ensure that all eligible children receive free school lunches. Many children on Long Island actually go to school to eat; they receive the majority of their day's food there. Further, we are redoubling our efforts to assure that children from single-parent households receive the proper child support. We contract with and provide funding for food banks and food pantries.

This fall, the Long Island Hunger Summit 2010 at Adelphi University focused on the seriously overwhelmed partnership between the government social services system and nonprofit agencies. A central focus of the summit was the need for the business community to assume an even larger role in supporting many of the nonprofits that are barely staying afloat in their crucial missions.

Certainly the business community has been hard hit in this economic downturn, but we are greatly encouraged that many local businesses will assist the nonprofit agencies engaged in easing hunger. More than ever, we are hopeful that, in this holiday season, more businesses will come forward for the first time, or others will enhance their already good humanitarian efforts. Without question, this will make a real difference in thousands of lives in our region.


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