By Annette Hinkle
The Hamptons are world-renown as the summer playground of the rich and famous. But when fall arrives and the jet set departs, a different scenario takes over — one in which local food pantries step up to the plate, literally, filling the gap for hungry families struggling to survive year round on the East End.
Times are particularly tough in the winter when seasonal work comes to a stand still and heating bills kick.
“Every year after Labor Day we see our numbers go up,” says Gabrielle Scarpaci, executive director of the East Hampton Food Pantry which operates from Windmill Village on Accabonac Road with a satellite location at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Amagansett.
“People in the service industry have their hours cut or lose their jobs when the summer crowd leaves,” she adds. “Wages aren’t high, even if they’re working all summer it’s not enough to get through winter.”
Before the economic downturn of 2008, in the summer, Scarpaci notes the pantry served 40 to 50 families each week. When the recession hit, that summer number swelled to 200 per week and has stayed there ever since.
“Now in the off-season we’re above 300 and in the middle of winter, it’s close to 350 families per week,” adds Scarpaci who says the pantry fed 25,000 people from January to October of this year. “We’re seeing new faces every week. Families who used to donate to us now have to come to us.”
And now, just as winter is setting in, the East Hampton Food Pantry is in danger of not having enough money to stay open in the months ahead.
The pantry spends $4,000 to $5,000 each week to provide fresh produce, meat, dairy and bread for clients which is supplemented with staples. But there’s less than $20,000 currently in the food pantry account and Scarpaci fears that without major donation dollars coming in soon, the pantry will have to close for at least a few weeks when demand is at its peak.
“There have been times before where we’ve gotten low, but never this low,” says Scarpaci, who notes that a fundraising New Year’s Day polar bear plunge at Main Beach in East Hampton will bring in some money for the town’s four pantries, but not nearly enough.
“We’re trying to get the word out to the community that we’re really in trouble,” she adds. “We’re asking the Alec Baldwins of the world to give us a check.”
Recent federal cuts to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) have made matters even worse with $302 million in annual SNAP benefits eliminated in New York alone, impacting 3.1 million residents.
“I’m working with seniors who have had their food stamps cut at Windmill Village — up to $70 a month,” she says. “That’s an enormous amount of money for one person. I’m sure our numbers will go up because of that.”
Evelyn Ramunno who runs the Sag Harbor Food Pantry from the basement of the Old Whalers’ Church notes that despite the difficulties, the pantry is “holding its own and hoping to get through the winter.”
“Now that seasonal workers are done, our numbers are up. We were up to 88 families last week and I expect more due to Thanksgiving,” says Ramunno who has gotten donations in through the efforts of Temple Adas Israel, Sag Harbor Elementary School and the Knights of Columbus.
“Monetarily, our fundraising letter is just going out now,” adds Ramunno who, like Scarpaci, is seeing new faces every week now that the cold months are here — many of them people who were born and raised in the community.
“It’s hard for them and hard for me,” she says. “I’ve lived here my whole life and know so many of them. It’s difficult for them to come to us. We try to make them comfortable and that’s why we’re there. Our volunteers are happy to help and happy to serve them.”
On Tuesday, clients of the Sag Harbor Food Pantry not only picked up a turkey or roasting chicken with all the fixings, they also were given freshly baked apple or pumpkin pies courtesy of the St. Andrew’s Youth Group which has made pie baking an annual tradition in Sag Harbor.
“It makes the kids feel good,” says Ramunno. “They sell the pies and they give them to us as well.”
Gene Scanlon is in charge of the food pantry at St Ann’s Episcopal Church in Bridgehampton. He notes in years past, migrant laborers working in local farm fields were the primary pantry clients. These days, like most of the pantries in the area, clients include seasonal workers, the local Hispanic population, young families and the senior population.
“We rely on word of mouth,” says Scanlon who estimates the pantry serves about 50 people each week in the winter and spends about $1,500 to $3,000 per month on staples. Donations, he notes have been steady.
“We’re OK now. We get money – a nice amount – people keep thinking of us,” he says. “Money appears in the mail. There’s a group of retired gentlemen who have lunch once a week. They chip in and we get dollars from their lunch.”
For local pantries, there is, at least a bit of good news this week.
On Tuesday, in response to SNAP cuts, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced $4.5 million in state grants to help 2,600 emergency food providers throughout New York respond to the increased need for food assistance — including Island Harvest ($29,405) and Long Island Cares, Inc. ($245,392), both of which provide food to East End pantries.
“With the holiday season upon us, New York State is stepping up to help food banks and soup kitchens across the state stock their shelves and feed those in need,” Governor Cuomo said. “This time of year is also about celebrating the spirit of giving, so I encourage all New Yorkers to join our efforts by donating food or volunteering their time at local food banks and soup kitchens.”
“A little can go a long way,” added Governor Cuomo, “and I encourage all who can to help those less fortunate this year.”
East Hampton Food Pantry: website — easthamptonfoodpantry.org. Checks payable to East Hampton Food Pantry can be mailed to: 219-50 Accabonac Road, PO Box 505, East Hampton, NY 11937.
Sag Harbor Food Pantry: website — sagharborfoodpantry.com. Checks payable to
Sag Harbor Community Food Pantry can be mailed to: 44 Union Street, PO Box 1241, Sag Harbor, NY 11963.
Bridgehampton Food Pantry: Checks payable to Bridgehampton Food Pantry can be mailed to: PO Box 961, Bridgehampton, NY 11932. Attn: Food Pantry.