Gurney's Inn
August 23, 2017

East Hampton Food Pantry: One Scrappy Charity

James J. Mackin. (click for larger version)
You won't see gown and jewel-bedecked celebrities and suave millionaires on their red carpet. They don't have one.

You won't get invites to plush galas boasting famed chefs serving fancy cuisine at a tony setting. They can't afford the upfront cost of mounting a party.

"We don't have the money to put together a big fundraiser," said Vicki Littman, chair of the East Hampton Food Pantry. "We need all our money for food."

And, as well-heeled summer residents prepare to head back to Manhattan and catering trucks turn west, the EHFP will still be here, feeding local residents all year round. It addresses the need with an annual budget of about $200,000, the cost of a couple of tables at the hottest Hamptons events.

For over 25 years, the food pantry has fed an average of 300 families per week, each week. It hasn't been easy; there have been obstacles aplenty.

In 2004, the pantry found a home in the community center in Windmill Village I. After a story in this newspaper about EHFP's efforts, a local benefactor stepped up and helped construct thousands of dollars of improvements, including storage, conveyor belts, and even solar panels, to create an efficient distribution center.

For 12 years the pantry operated out of Windmill. "It was ideal for the senior citizens who lived there," Littman explained.

In 2010, as the need continued to grow, EHFP established a satellite distribution center in Amagansett at the Presbyterian Church's Scoville Hall. Sighs of relief didn't last very long.

Scoville Hall burned down in 2011 and the search for a new satellite location was on. Space was found at the St. Michael's senior citizen housing complex nearby.

In 2016 the board at Windmill Village evicted the pantry. Officials there said they wanted to convert the distribution space into a gym. Opponents at the time questioned the logic of offering seniors Zumba classes when what many of them need is food.

Scrambling, volunteers found temporary space for the winter at the Hampton Country Day Camp in Wainscott. "If it wasn't for Jay Jacobs (owner of the camp), we would have had to close down," Littman said. But the space was only available for the winter.

This past May the East Hampton Town Board stepped in, offering the food pantry space in an outbuilding on the town hall campus. It's just a small room with an even smaller office. But, said administrative manager Ricci Paradiso, "It works." EHFP bought a new stand alone walk-in freezer for $15,000 and rents a trailer for dry goods at an expected cost of $30,000 this year.

Between eight and 10 volunteers help hand out supplies to clients every Tuesday. During Indy's recent visit, there was fresh fruit and vegetables, milk and eggs, venison and meat, fresh bread and muffins, plus canned goods. "We buy the fruit and vegetables, the rest is donated," volunteer Pat said. Like her coworker Roberto, she's been helping out at the pantry for years. "It's rewarding," said Roberto. "I love to help. Sometimes I need help myself," said the volunteer who suffers from a heart condition.

The night before pantry day, volunteers gather to pack up bags of dry and canned goods. "We try to give enough for three days," manager Mona Forbell explained.

Business wasn't as brisk last week as it can be during the winter. "We have more clients in the winter, when people get laid off from their summer jobs," Littman said.

The weekly pantry serves a sort of social, and safety, touchstone for some clients. If a senior who's a regular client is missing, Forbell and volunteers will check up on them and, in some cases, deliver their bag of food.

The pantry currently has enough stock to last through September. "Come October, we need to come up with $2000 per week to keep operating," Littman said. Each year EHFP applies for, and receives, grants from Island Harvest and Long Island Cares. Using a concept Littman originated, Bridgehampton National Bank raises money for area pantries through their "Buy an Apple" program.

Individuals who hold events also donate leftover food to the pantry, Littman reported. "We just have to be aware of what day the event is held and how much we can store. But, basically, we'll take anything we can get."

The future is looking a little brighter for the scrappy charity that can. East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell has promised EHFP a permanent home in the new senior citizen center planned on Springs Fireplace Road. "That location will be so convenient," Littman predicted.

But for now, the group is working to recover from moving expenses.

And they are planning a fundraiser. Tonight, EHFP will hold an outdoor movie screening at Indian Wells Beach in Amagansett. The flick picked is Boss Baby, featuring the voice of local philanthropist and actor Alec Baldwin. "We chose Boss Baby, because Alec Baldwin has been such a big supporter of our community," Littman said. "We hope he'll come."

EHFP's fundraiser is different from glitzy galas in another way: admission tonight is free. Volunteers are just asking for donations. "Whatever people can afford," Littman said.

Littman expressed gratitude to the evening's major sponsor Saunders & Associates, which is helping to underwrite the upfront costs for movie night. She favors having even a modest fundraiser during "the season" to inform visitors about East Hampton's hungry families.

"Our summer community is unaware of the need," she said. "It's their landscapers, their nannies, their housecleaners that we're feeding. And yes," she added. "One day we'd like to have a gala."

Movie night at Indian Wells opens at 7 PM, with screentime at 8 PM. Food and beverages will be available for purchase. Bring beach chairs and blankets . . . and your wallet.

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