What began as an effort to help East Meadow residents facing financial difficulties in the Great Recession has grown into a local resource for those still struggling to feed themselves and their families.
Now the food pantry at Christ Alive Church is ex-panding. The Rev. Cristian Preda, the church’s senior pastor, recently gave the Herald a tour of the building as it makes room to store more food.
Activities at the church, which Preda describes as offering a modernized approach to Christian worship, are still operating as usual on its first floor. Congregants attend services and listen to songs of praise played by a full band that includes Preda’s wife, Stefanie.
Above a staircase leading to the basement is a vibrant painting of Noah’s ark. Below, a construction crew has been renovating the space to make more room for storing food, while still holding religious classes and youth programs.
“We, as religious people, can get involved and better our community,” Preda said of the church’s mission for the food pantry. “We ought to.”
Preda, who lives in Merrick with Stefanie and three children, was born in Romania, where he studied theology at the Romanian Biblical Institute in Bucharest and worshipped at a seminary in the town of Rădauţi.
Stefanie’s father, Robert Cantor, had been the pastor at Christ Alive, then known as Open Hand of God Church, which he bought in 1983.
While on a missionary trip with her father in Romania in 1999, Stefanie met Preda, and the two fell in love, he said. Two years later, he immigrated to the U.S. and finished his studies at Nyack College and Alliance Theological Seminary in Manhattan.
Preda was ordained as the church’s main pastor in 2009, around the same time that one of its members, Joanne Kassebaum, launched the food pantry in response to the local effects of the country’s economic downturn. “Our town was hurting,” Kassebaum said, adding that there was no food pantry close enough to provide enough support, and she decided to collect donations to start one at the church.
Kassebaum be-gan reaching out to local businesses and asking for day-old food that was still fresh but would otherwise be thrown out. The vendors who offered the most support included what was then Zorn’s, Bagelicious and Panera Bread.
“We went from place to place asking for help, and everybody said yes,” she said. “It was so much easier than I thought it would be. We have a very, very kind community.”
After six months in business, the food pantry qualified for grants from Long Island Cares and Island Harvest. It has received additional help from businesses that were new to East Meadow, like Stew Leonard’s, community members and East Meadow School District students.
The pantry is still in operation during its renovation, and is open on the third Saturday of every month from 10 a.m. to noon, when it has an average of 65 visitors.
Despite having only enough volunteers to operate once a month, Preda said, they can provide visitors with a supply that will last them until the next opening.
“They seem so grateful when they leave, because they have so much groceries to last them,” Kassebaum said.
Preda added that it’s not the “destitute” or “impoverished” who rely on the pantry, but rather those who are “just above the food stamp line” and do not qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Kassebaum added that the period right after the holidays is when food pantries need the most help, because of a drop in donations combined with a tendency for families to overspend on gifts.
The church’s renovations are expected to be completed in late winter, when there will be a ribbon cutting and a community celebration. To donate food in the meantime, call (516) 794-4291.