The farm-to-food-pantry movement; how the North Fork is addressing food insecurity
A VAST NETWORK OF ADVOCATES AND VOLUNTEERS IS WORKING TO ADDRESS GROWING FOOD INSECURITY ON THE NORTH FORK PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID BENTHAL
by Tara Smith
Three days a week, the food pantry at Southold’s Center for Advocacy, Support and Transformation opens its doors at 9 a.m. sharp. Housed in the nonprofit’s new headquarters, a former Methodist Church and more recently an opera house, the food bank resembles an artisanal market, arranged in a new “client-choice” model that offers an added layer of dignity. The neat aisles are filled with all of the staples, sourced from both national and local brands, plus an array of fresh local fruits and vegetables.
Though summer is typically a quieter time of year for local food pantries, executive director Cathy Demeroto and her staff have noticed an uptick in demand, a reflection of historic inflation rates that have touched every aspect of day-to-day life.
Most days, a line begins to form more than an hour before the pantry doors open, with some families expressing concern that CAST might run out of milk, cheese or other perishable staples.
“We’re seeing the anxiety that people are feeling. They’re afraid they’re not going to have enough food to get through the week,” Demeroto said. “Everybody said the pandemic was unprecedented, but we’re seeing even greater need now.”
Before COVID-19, the organization distributed about 40,000 meals each year. In 2020, as many were furloughed or lost their jobs, that number swelled to nearly 200,000 meals. Last year, just over 244,000 meals were handed out to community members and Demeroto projects that will exceed 300,000 in 2022.
Since the organization moved into its improved headquarters in November, more than 200 new families have registered for assistance, bringing the total to about 900 local families served on a regular basis.
“Like the pandemic, inflation has a disproportionate impact on low-income people,” Demeroto said in a July interview. “It really erodes the value of people’s real wages and any savings they have.”
In June, inflation hit a 40-year high at 9.1%, with consumers feeling the squeeze across the board, from gasoline to electricity to clothing and groceries.
According to the most recent report by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, grocery costs are up 10.4% over last year, with items like chicken increasing by nearly 19% and eggs up 33%.
In an area of increasing wealth and surging real estate values, the North Fork may not be the first locale that comes to mind when you think of food insecurity.
But the reality is that many families struggle, from those working at farms and restaurants to seniors living on fixed incomes. Census data estimates that 7.7% of people in Southold Town are considered to be below the national poverty level.
Since its inception nearly 60 years ago, CAST has always worked to help address basic needs: nutrition, clothing, help with an oil bill or finding a job. Aptly, their slogan is “Neighbors helping neighbors,” evidenced not only by a long list of donors, but by the hundred or so volunteers, who include nearly two dozen local chefs and farmers.
“It’s ironic that we have all this land, beautiful vineyards, golf clubs, restaurants,” said Peter Treiber Sr., who founded Treiber Farms in Peconic with his son in 2014. “And there are people who are under the radar. There’s people who are hungry.”
Treiber was one of the first farmers to enlist in CAST’s Farm to Friend initiative, which began in 2018 with nearly a dozen farms donating portions of their harvest to the food pantry. Now, 18 farms participate in the program, providing food pantry customers with year-round access to fresh produce.
“The consequence, often, of being food insecure is poor health or chronic health conditions,” Demeroto said. “Being able to provide nutrient-dense food, lots of fresh produce, makes a difference.”
Four years ago, Treiber donated a 50-by-100 plot to create the Common Ground community garden, spearheaded by the Rev. Roger Joslin, vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Greenport and Church of the Redeemer in Mattituck. The garden was inspired by the observation that many agricultural workers grow food for others, but can’t afford to purchase fresh produce for their own families.
The garden is home to 36 beds and generates, on average, about 5,000 pounds of produce for CAST’s pantry each year.
“We bring them all sorts of eclectic stuff: giant zucchini or Swiss chard, dill … and it all goes,” Treiber said. “Everything we deliver there, someone’s taking it home.”
The community garden and donation process is a nod to the Old Testament concept of “gleaning,” whereby farmers would leave unharvested produce along the edge of their fields to feed the poor.
“You don’t have to be buying filet mignon to feel the pinch,” Treiber said.
Though participating farms do receive a minimal tax benefit, farmers and foodies alike say there are a slew of benefits that stretch beyond just feeding the hungry, especially with regard to food waste and climate action.
“As farmers, you’re always aware of the waste stream, if something isn’t sold,” said Treiber, who is set to join CAST’s board of directors. “The challenge with getting fresh produce to people is that there’s a shelf life.”
Enter the East End Food Institute, a Southampton-based organization that supports, promotes and advocates for local food. Through its Farm to Community program, the institute seeks to give local food pantries and other institutions buying power to access both fresh and minimally processed local food. Last year, through a $25,000 grant from All for the East End, five local organizations — including CAST — were able to purchase directly from their wholesale virtual farmers market.
Executive director Kate Fullam recently toured CAST’s new pantry and beamed when she spotted local blueberry jam made at the institute’s commercial kitchen alongside a jar of Welch’s.
“Folks shopping for staples at their food pantry can get the same access to food at the farm stand. At our core, we believe that people should be able to enjoy the bounty that’s growing around them. And the reality is many people can’t afford to,” said Fullam, who began her career in environmental advocacy.
Her philosophy is two-pronged. She believes diversified revenue streams can help farmers continue to produce on their land. And allowing farmers to shed their surplus, whether it’s an abundance of sweet potatoes or butternut squash, also helps eliminate waste. Both of those crops are routinely processed into purees or soups that can be frozen and redistributed to food banks, schools, hospitals and senior centers as part of the institute’s effort to connect those centers to more nutritious food.
The pandemic and subsequent supply chain issues also shed light on the value of investing in local and regional food systems. “We saw that the food chain can easily break down in a crisis,” Fullam said.
She and her team are currently exploring plans for a more permanent facility and commercial kitchen she described as an “East End food hub” in the Riverhead building that currently houses the East End Food Market on Friday afternoons. The farmer’s market is also doing its part to share the local bounty with neighbors.
“We’re seeing the anxiety that people are feeling. They’re afraid they’re not going to have enough food to get through the week. Everybody said the pandemic was unprecedented, but we’re seeing even greater need now.”Cathy Demeroto
Many vendors at the market accept Double Up Food Bucks, a program that doubles the value of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) vouchers that are spent at participating farmer s markets and farm stands. The idea is to encourage people to choose New York-grown fruits and vegetable, as well as fruit-bearing plants and herbs.
The program arrived in Suffolk County last year after the Suffolk County Economic Development Corporation approved a $25,000 grant to the Field & Fork Network, which began administering the Double Up Food Bucks program in 2014 at seven farmers markets in western New York. By 2021, the program had expanded to 29 counties and over 150 farmers markets, mobile markets, groceries, and small retail and farm stand locations.
Last winter, the market was also able to offer produce by donation, inviting people to pay what they could for fresh produce.
The small changes can have wide ripple effects. And there are also smaller, more grassroots efforts.
Four years ago, Greenport resident Penelope Rudder approached the Village Board with a concept to establish a “Little Free Pantry” to help neighbors in need. The movement, a spin on the Little Free Library concept, started in Arkansas in 2016 and has spread rapidly, especially on social media.
Rudder, who has degrees in nutrition and biochemistry, is a passionate advocate for food access and justice.
“Food is me,” she said. “And I love people, so this is a perfect combination.”
Village officials embraced the idea and now dozens of similar pantry structures have been put up across the North and South forks.
The system is reliant on neighbors donating food from their cupboards, grocery carts and gardens. Several local businesses whose excess is intercepted before being thrown out, are also involved.
Rudder, for example, often picks up bread and pastries from Blue Duck Bakery and bagels from Goldberg’s in Greenport at the end of the day and stocks them in the pantry, where they are quickly accounted for.
“These little cupboards aren’t charity,” she said. “They’re justice. It addresses social justice, racial justice, environmental justice and food justice.”
Walking by and seeing the pantry stocked with anything from ketchup packets to organic gourmet offerings makes Rudder’s day.
“What’s so empowering about this movement is that I’m just like everyone else,” she said. “I’m not anyone special, but one person can be the catalyst for whatever their passion is to help ameliorate the well-being of others.”
Eliminating food waste is also the crux of a new initiative led by South Jamesport resident Maria Pietromonaco. This summer, she launched a chapter of Food Rescue US, an organization that engages volunteers to transfer fresh food surpluses from farms, restaurants and other businesses to agencies that serve the food insecure.
For more than a decade, Pietromonaco volunteered with Island Harvest — the largest hunger relief organization on Long Island — as a rescue driver transporting food from supermarkets, schools and other locations to their food bank.
“I always loved the concept of rescuing food that was about to hit the trash,” Pietromonaco said, recalling familiar adages her Italian grandmother would share about not wasting food in a world where food scarcity affects so many. “It pains me to see perfectly good food wind up in the garbage. I used to go to high schools and pack the car with trays and trays and trays of food every day. Just seeing that really strikes a chord. We live on affluent Long Island and there are people here that don’t have a meal a day.”
Climate impacts are also troubling to Pietromonaco. According to Project Drawdown, food waste contributes about 8% of total global greenhouse gas emission. The organization estimates that cutting food waste in half by 2050 would prevent 26.2 gigatons of CO2 emissions.
Pietromonaco has been working to connect with farms and restaurants in the area, both to collect donations and spread the word about waste. She said she’s been pleasantly surprised to learn that many farmers are conscientious about not over-harvesting and many restaurants are creatively repurposing food before it rots, making soups and other efficient dishes.
“The challenge is trying to connect the dots,” she said. “I know they’ve got to have food waste every week and I’d love to get my hands on it [to donate to local organizations like CAST].”
During the pandemic, lawmakers approved a series of emergency crisis responses: enhanced unemployment benefits, stimulus checks, expanded child tax credits.
But there’s no silver bullet for inflation, and leaders like Demeroto worry that the need may worsen as the seasons change and home heating bills loom.
This month, the White House will host a forum on hunger, nutrition and health with the aim to close disparities around hunger, nutrition, physical activity and diet-related diseases. It’s the first time in 50 years such a conference has been called and advocates hope it will galvanize action by anti-hunger and nutrition organizers, food companies, health care agencies and government.
Fullam said she plans to follow the conference closely and participate virtually.
“Obviously, the food banks are the first line of defense on the triage. People need to be fed right away,” she said. “But we’re also trying to fix the system. We need to solve the problem of how they got there in the first place.”
One way she envisions making change is by redirecting government subsidies to local producers. Fullam said that currently, the vast majority of government-assisted food programs focus on highly processed foods which “just aren’t healthy” for people.
“If we can direct federal and state dollars in the direction of local food from local producers, it changes the economics and gets people access to healthier, better options in the long run,” Fullam said.
According to the nationwide nonprofit Feeding America, food insecurity can lead to serious health complications, as hunger and health are deeply intertwined.
Adults grappling with food insecurity, for example, are 40% more likely to be diagnosed with a chronic condition and face a higher risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and obesity. Children at risk of hunger are also susceptible to adverse health conditions and may struggle in school both academically, behaviorally and socially.
“People have to make decisions. Am I going to buy food or am I going to pay my rent? Am I going to put oil in the tank or am I going to get my prescription medication?” Demeroto said. “In an area where we’re surrounded by agriculture and farms, there’s no reason for people to be food insecure.”
HOW YOU CAN HELP
There are several ways to support CAST’s ongoing capital campaign, both with monetary and in-kind donations.Donations made to CAST go far beyond food, but also provide clothing, heat, electric, school supplies and a wealth of programming to neighbors. Checks can be brought to CAST at 53930 Main Road in Southold or mailed to P.O. Box 1566, Southold NY 11971. Non-perishable food donations and volunteers for food pick-ups, unloading, and other pantry tasks are also welcome. Contact the food pantry staff at 631-477-1717 or visit their website for more information.
COMMON GROUND GARDEN
The community garden at Treiber farms is open to volunteers and anyone interested in adopting a bed. If you’re interested in gardening for a good cause, contact Barbara Wasilausky at [email protected].
EAST END FOOD INSTITUTE
Support a more sustainable, more equitable food system by supporting the East End Food Institute. Donations help maximize food production throughout the region to ensure that everyone in the community can enjoy the benefits of local food.
During the height of the growing season, volunteers are also needed to help wash, peel, and process tens of thousands of pounds of produce from local farms. For more information, please email [email protected].
LITTLE FREE PANTRIES
There are several located across the North Fork, including in the Adams Street parking lot in Greenport, outside of the Episcopal Church on Main Road in Greenport and near the Church of the Redeemer on Old Sound Ave. in Mattituck.
The pantries are stocked organically, so if you’re looking to contribute, keep your eyes peeled and look out for empty shelves. In general, items like peanut butter, canned and dry goods, toilet paper and other basic hygiene products are always in demand.
US FOOD RESCUE
Through a web-based app, food donors can register available fresh food and volunteers can sign up to “rescue” the food to bring to a local agency like CAST and other food pantries.
To get involved, contact Suffolk County site coordinator Maria Pietromonaco at [email protected].