Coronavirus exacerbated another crisis: Long Islanders went hungry.
Long Island Cares, a nonprofit food pantry that runs The Harry Chapin Food Bank, projects that nearly 350,000 people in the region did not know where their next meal would come from in 2020, an increase of 60% over the previous pre-pandemic year. The organization’s CEO Paule Patcher said more startling, nearly 67% received emergency food assistance for the first time during the pandemic.
Patcher said the COVID-19 related economic downturn, subsequent loss of jobs and remaining under-employment are major contributors to the uptick of those in need.
The extent of need on Long Island is shown in a new study from Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger relief organization, that shows a projected increase in hunger. The organization's Map the Meal Gap program studies food insecurity among Americans receiving SNAP benefits and the needs of children receiving assistive services such as free and/or reduced price lunch. Patcher’s group analyzed their data. He said the information will “provide policymakers and service providers with valuable information in an effort to help reach families and children in need of food assistance.”
The study did not take into account those who are not eligible for governmental assistance, which accounts for about 40% of those using the Emergency Food Network, a segment of the population Patcher described as the “working poor.” He said these people nearly completely rely on charitable organizations for assistance, including Long Island Cares.
“They may be working. There may be more than one person in the household working. But because of the high cost of living in our region they cannot provide for all of their family needs and often food becomes one of those needs people feel like they can dispense with,” Patcher said.
Long Island Cares served over 287,000 people from March 2020 to March 2021. Patcher said those who came in for assistance were vetted, and largely cited COVID-related circumstances as reasons for needing assistance.
“Today, it’s: ‘I lost my job. I got furloughed. I don't know when I'm going to be able to go back to work. My business closed,’’' Patcher said, referring to federal labor estimates that show 30% of jobs that were lost during the pandemic are not likely to return.
“If you look at the Long Island landscape right now, there are no more Pier 1 stores. There are no more Modell's in shopping centres... Century 21 stores are gone,” he continued. “These all represented real jobs for people — granted not high paying jobs — but they were jobs and now they’re gone. So I think we have a responsibility and an opportunity to take a look at employment and unemployment and decide what we're going to be doing in this region.”
While some people who were furloughed have found other opportunities, Patcher estimates they might be earning up to 30% less than they did before the pandemic.
“Clearly what’s driving this at the top is unemployment and underemployment,” he said. “The jobs are just not paying enough to keep pace with the economy on Long Island, and that's why we're still finding many families who we see coming to our satellite locations telling us ‘I work two or three jobs just to get by and I still have to come to your pantry.’”
Patcher said many people who are food insecure are struggling to decide whether to stay in their jobs, put themselves back into the job market to try for a higher paying job or are slow to get back into the workforce in part because they are traumatized.
“A percentage of those people are scared to death to go back into the job market because they don't want to experience this again,” he said. “Where they’ve had a perfectly wonderful job and less than 20 years ago they lost it because of the Great Recession ... they got themselves back into the workforce, they started to pick up their life again and then COVID happens and we're back to where we were.”
To keep up with the increased demand and provide for food insecure people, Long Island Cares had most of its staff work in-person throughout the pandemic. They rolled out pop-up distribution centers, mobile deliveries and satellite locations.
The organization also received assistance from the state as part of the Nourish New York program, funding from Suffolk County for local distribution in high-need areas, and over $1 million in donations from individuals and hundreds of corporate partners, Patcher said.
Pre-pandemic data shows a decline in Long Island’s hunger, with nearly 9% fewer people considered food insecure in 2019 by Long Island Cares, compared to the year before.
Patcher attributed the decrease to a strong economy at the time, but also a migration of Long Islanders to more affordable parts of the country. “Frankly, poor people can do better in South Carolina than they can in South Hempstead,'' Patcher said.