November 22, 2006

Saying Thanks By Helping The Hungry

In the land of plenty, people are starving.

In the Hamptons, where McMansions tower over multi-million dollar properties and the rich and famous frolic and feast, there's another segment of the East End population that cannot afford to feed their families.

And the most startling news is that the numbers of those who are literally starving among us are rapidly increasing.

For each of the families that gather around Thanksgiving tables brimming with bounty tomorrow, there are scores of others who can scarcely scrape by, who have been forced to seek relief from area food pantries and other charitable organizations that have galvanized this holiday season to feed the hungry.

According to Mary Ann Tupper, director of Southampton's Human Resources of the Hamptons (HRH), the organization donated approximately 75 baskets filled with all the fixings for a Thanksgiving dinner on Monday — and the number of families seeking help has grown.

"It goes up every year," she said. "As soon as the weather starts to turn, my food pantry rolls double." Tupper said that while there are 300-400 families who visit the food pantry on a regular basis, that number can soar to up to 900, especially during the holiday season. "It's very expensive to put a turkey dinner on the table."

Tupper, whose organization also helps to fund Maureen's Haven, a program instituted to help shelter and feed the homeless in area churches, said the demographics of the hungry in the Hamptons are changing.

"It used to be people who were landscapers, gardeners, nannies, who would lose their jobs in the winter when everyone went back to the city. Now, it's college-educated people — local people who have grown up here — who are not making it. It's very frightening."

Those same individuals, said Tupper, are often working two jobs and yet, still unable to make ends meet and call HRH for help with providing their children with holiday toys. Single moms, she said, are among those who struggle.

To raise funds, HRH holds an annual polar bear plunge. "We jump in the ocean in December," said Tupper.

Randi Shubin Dresner, President and CEO of Island Harvest, a food rescue organization founded in 1992, agrees that the hungry on the East End are not comprised only of the homeless or unemployed. After completing a survey a year ago on who accesses food from emergency programs, Shubin Dresner said the results might surprise some of the well heeled in the Hamptons who think that hunger is not a local problem. "The face of hunger is your face, and it's my face," she said. "It's people who are struggling to make ends meet."

Shubin Dresner said that 47% of those who seek assistance from emergency food programs are working. "Maybe they had an illness in their family and it affected their health insurance, or maybe they were a professional — an accountant, a reporter — and they lost their job."

One story, said Shubin Dresner, made the numbers come alive: "I was on the phone with a reporter last year, during the holiday season, discussing the issue. She stopped me and said, 'Oh, you're talking about me.'" The woman, who worked two jobs, and her husband, a professional, had a child with a disability whose medical expenses had left them reeling. "The truth is, it's anybody."

To that end, Island Harvest strives year-round to meet the growing needs. "Right now, we're faced with this huge, surmountable issue of finding 15,000 turkeys this holiday season to help people have a traditional meals with their families."

Island Harvest was founded by Linda Breitstone, a woman who was incensed when she saw food being thrown out by a convenience store owner and convinced him to donate to the needy. Today, Island Harvest serves as a bridge between those with excess food — including restaurants, supermarkets, East End farms and other donors — and those who need it.

Thirty-six million pounds of food have been rescued by Island Harvest since its inception. Food is delivered to over 400 Long Island community-based organizations, including more than 25 on the East End in locations such as Amagansett, Riverhead, Greenport, Bridgehampton and Southampton.

Those who wish to help Island Harvest meet the demand for turkeys can make a donation at either of the Panera Bread locations in Bridgehampton or Riverhead; all Citibank locations island-wide are drop-off points for canned and packaged food.

The need for turkeys has never been more dire, agreed a representative of Long Island Cares — requests have increased from 5000 last year to 7000 this year.

Still, scores of churches and humanitarian organizations have banded together to help. In Greenport, Community Action of Southold Town (CAST) is providing Thanksgiving baskets for those registered with their agency. An annual migrant dinner sponsored by the Long Island Council of Churches was held Tuesday in the Riverhead Middle School, attended by the homeless, disabled and low-income families in the area.

Other area eateries that plan to pitch in to help the hungry on Thanksgiving include Bay and Main in Greenport and the Riverhead Grill.

According to Diane Cascone, manager of Waldbaum's in Westhampton Beach, the store's staff is helping out Maureen's Haven and other charitable causes. Standing outside, Cascone greeted shoppers who stopped to add a can to those collected by members of the Westhampton Presbyterian Church's youth group. "People want to help," she said. "They just need to know the proper channels to do so."

But, as the outpouring of concern continues, the numbers of hungry people continue to rise, said Barbara Kujawski, coordinator of volunteers for the Dominican Sisters on the East End. One factor, she said, is the high cost of medications for those under 65 and ineligible for Medicare or Medicaid.

"Medicine, taxes — everything is going up. Have you ever noticed the price of anything going down — except the price of gas before Election Day?"

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