Hardy Plumbing
March 29, 2006

Volunteers Help 'Hidden Community' Survive

Skipping meals, food rationing, or eating less varied diets are just some of the tactics employed by people whose limited resources prevent them from eating on a regular basis.

Even in the Hamptons, hunger has etched its mark on the faces of the poor. In response, organizations have cropped up, offering a lifeline to people who need it most.

Last Thursday, Reverend Noel Koestline, Pastor of the First United Methodist Church of East Hampton, hosted an informational forum entitled Hunger on the South Fork at the church, where representatives of food rescue, distribution and local food pantries spoke of their work, with a focus on East Hampton.

"There's a whole hidden community right here in East Hampton and they're embarrassed, they don't want to ask for charity. They want to keep their dignity," Koestline said last Friday.

Rivalyn Zweig is a volunteer for Island Harvest, a food reclamation organization based in Mineola that picks up food from restaurants, caterers, and food retailers and redistributes it to local food pantries and shelters.

Zweig is an East Hampton representative who makes weekly runs to several places including Starbucks for their pastries and coffee beans.

Before it closed, Barefoot Contessa had been a "wonderful" contributor, giving away prepared foods, salads, and cheeses, Zweig explained. After eight years, she filed enough receipts for 28,000 pounds of food — "food that would have gone to waste."

Prepared foods must be carefully packaged and chilled down to 42 degrees. Food cannot have been previously heated.

Zweig also runs her own food rescue group, where she "gleans" excess crops from local farms and redistributes it to nearby food pantries, daycare, and senior citizen centers and shelters. Surplus food is picked up by trucks from Island Harvest and redistributed at stops upIsland.

She started the company 12 years ago, and Island Harvest is her sponsor, giving her the opportunity to offer farmers tax credits and insurance liability. Since then, "We've reclaimed hundreds of thousands of pounds of food," she said.

Zweig harvests fall crops because they stay fresher longer than summer crops do, some maintaining their viability for several weeks. Potatoes, peppers, squash, and apples are just a few of the goods she collects, but not without the help of some volunteers. Students, Boy Scouts, environmental clubs, and religious groups are all enlisted to help her pick up the food and bag it.

"What's wonderful and why I really created this for children," said Zweig, is that "it's a great way for children to get involved in something for others. They have fun doing it and they feel good doing it."

Scheduling collections is a formidable task in and of itself. Matching good weather with class schedules and times food can be delivered to pantries can be very tricky, she said.

Matching the crop with one's palate is also taken into consideration. "One year I had a bounty harvest of 1200 beets, and that was a very tough sell," said Zweig.

A variety of other food services are also available on the East End. The Children Summer Lunch Program offers children in Sag Harbor, Bridgehampton, and East Hampton, a week's worth of lunch for eight weeks during the summer. It will start on July 5.

There are over 500 children in the three communities that are eligible, from pre-kindergarten to ninth grade, explained senior volunteer Andrea Gurvitz. Only school districts know which families are eligible for the program, so a letter is sent to their homes, accompanied with a notice from the program at the end of the school year alerting them to sign up for the program.

"Last year, we gave out over 1800

bags of groceries," founder Marilyn Feigenbaum Salenger said on Monday.

She started the program in 2001, after her son Jeremy "could never stand knowing that there were kids who didn't have food," she said. For his bar mitzvah, they decided to have the centerpieces made out of baskets of canned food that could be delivered to different food pantries.

"No child should go without food," Feigenbaum Salenge concluded.

The local food pantries are another resource for people in need.

Hercules Volpe, director of the East Hampton Food Pantry said the busy season for them is from November to April, because the seasonal jobs close down for the winter, leaving many out of work.

Operating for just one year as a stand-alone organization, the East Hampton pantry has already seen an increase in business.

"We opened up in Christmas 2004, but certainly from the time we opened up as a new organization to this time now we've seen an increase," said Volpe. "It just seems there are more people in need these days."

Last year, they gave food out to 2238 households, or about 5400 people. In January, they had 357 households consisting of 865 clients.

About 30% of the people who visit the East Hampton pantry are senior citizens. "There's a significant number of Latinos that come," he said, guessing that about two thirds of all visitors are women.

"We're on the frontline and it's nice to make people feel good when you can," said Volpe.

Dorothy Cronley, of the Wainscott Food Pantry, said they served 1600 people and 15,000 meals in Wainscott last year. Each year the number of people coming in increases, mostly by word of mouth. She has noticed that in the daytime, more elderly and single moms visit the pantry, while in the evening it is frequented more by men.

Dru Raley, representing the Springs Food Pantry said that they serve about 60 families a week. Their distribution increases from 35 bags of food a week in the summer to 80 bags per week come October because the seasonal farm work has come to an end. A majority of the people who visit this pantry are men.

Meals on Wheels in East Hampton is another resource people can turn to. The organization delivers two meals a day to anyone who is homebound due to injury or illness in East Hampton Town.

"We have volunteers who deliver meals for us," said Howe. "They spend a little time with the clients and see how they're feeling." Meals on Wheels currently serves about 50 people a day.

Executive Director Gretchin Howe said that age is not a criterion, and both short and long term servicing is available. There is a cost for the meals but they offer a sliding scale for those who can't afford to pay. "We have never turned anyone away for inability to pay," said Howe.

All of these organizations are in need of volunteers and donations. Zweig said she is also looking for more participating food retailers, restaurants, and caterers for Island Harvest pickups.

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