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On Long Island, Food Deserts Quietly Grow

Courtesy of Pixabay

Long Island has seen an increase in the number of what the federal government calls food deserts, areas where residents lack access to affordable healthy food.

The neighborhood along Straight Path in Wyandanch is one of more than 25 food deserts on Long Island. In Wyandanch it's easy to spot a lot of cheap, fast food places, but the nearest store with a proper produce department is a King Kullen located two miles away.

Randi Shubin-Dresner, CEO of Island Harvest Food Bank, says, “They [food deserts] don’t appear necessarily, it’s that other communities are growing and there are some communities, that for a whole host of reasons, are just not developing to support the people who live in those communities.”

Wyandanch has no bus routes available to the King Kullen, so low-income families who rely on public transportation often have no choice but to eat less nutritious food.

“And while it may not be the healthiest food you could get them, many people feel that at least they’re feeding their children and giving them something.”

Volunteers from Community Solidarity, the largest vegetarian food relief program in the U.S., gather every Saturday at noon in Wyandanch to set up rows of tables in an empty parking lot and fill it with fruits and vegetables and whole grain food.

PJ Sangiuolo, a three-year volunteer with Community Solidarity, says, “So basically what we do is collect food from local merchants, and most of it would normally be thrown away. And it’s still good. It’s still edible. And we give it out every Saturday.”

Michael Fields is another Community Solidarity volunteer. He originally helped at their Huntington Station site, which advocates describe as one of the larger food deserts on Long Island. “And I couldn’t believe it. You had 150 to 200 people lined up for food.”

Officials from local hunger relief organizations say that nearly 60 percent of Long Islanders are eligible for SNAP, the government’s food assistance program, commonly known as food stamps.

SNAP provides financial aid for food to nearly 50 million people in the U.S., 150,000 of whom live on Long Island. But advocates say people often run out of SNAP benefits halfway through the month. They then have to choose between buying fast food or not eating at all.

Taisha Freeman runs Island Harvest’s SNAP Outreach program, which helped more than a thousand people apply for SNAP last year. They plan to enroll an additional 2,200 Long Islanders by the end of 2017.  

Freeman says she’s worried about President Donald Trump’s proposed $190 billion cut to SNAP over the next ten years.

“This is something that the community needs. Cutting down will definitely hinder a lot of families that are already struggling.”