Hiding in plain sight

Pantries seeing more poverty among middle class, seniors

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By almost any measure, Elmont and Franklin Square are prosperous communities. Even so, they are not immune to hunger. In both communities, food insecurity is

on the rise.

“We’re serving more and more people each week,” said the Rev. Humberto Chavez, head of the Race Track Chaplaincy at Belmont Park, which operates a food pantry. “We started the pantry originally to help families of the people who work in the horseracing industry,” When there was no

racing, families

sometimes need-ed help.”

As insecurity in the surrounding communities rose, however, local residents outside the industry began visiting the chaplaincy’s pantry as well. Despite limited resources, “We wouldn’t turn away anybody,”Chavez said.

Urban poverty is easy to spot. Walk around New York City, and many neighborhoods have enclaves of homeless or people on the streets with cardboard signs asking for help. In suburban Long Island, however, the rising rates of middle-class poverty are harder to see.

Poverty hides in plain sight. Food insecurity — a growing problem for the working poor — is on the rise. In Nassau County, the number of people who cannot guarantee the source of their next meal has grown to 6 percent of the population, according to Feeding America, a nonprofit advocacy organization. This translates to 81,500 Long Islanders who face hunger on a regular basis.

The pantry at Belmont Park is one of more than 100 pantries in the area that offer a variety of services. Most are small, with limited hours of operation. Like many of them, the chaplaincy gets much of its food from Island Harvest and Long Island Cares — two island-wide suppliers of many such pantries. Long Island Cares distributes food to more than 590 pantries, soup kitchens and food banks throughout Long Island, according to the organization’s annual report. The Belmont pantry also receives food donations from Trader Joe’s and other local stores

and offers both packaged food and perishables, Chavez said. Not all pantries offer fresh food.

The Interfaith Nutrition Network, which is headquartered in the Town of Hempstead but also supports surrounding areas, reported the same trend as the chaplaincy. “We’re serving more and more seniors and middle-class guests — people further up the economic scale than we would’ve seen a few years ago,” said a woman speaking on behalf of the INN who asked not to be named. Besides food, many also need help finding affordable housing, as well as other basic needs, she added.

Long Island Cares noted a 19 percent increase in the number of people served from 2015 to 2016, the last year for which complete data is available. Paule Pachter, CEO of the charity, estimated that his organization had provided food for some 300,000 people last year. “Continued underemployment, tax increases, lack of affordable rental apartments and more people considered to be among the working poor are factors resulting in more people visiting food pantries and soup kitchens,” Pachter said.

For example, Franklin Square, with a population of roughly 31,500, has a median household income of $96,500 and median property value of $428,000, according to Data USA, a web tool directly linked to the U.S. census’ most recent data. Nevertheless, some 5.5 percent of residents live at or below the poverty benchmark — $25,100 for a family of four — set by the Department of Health and Human Services. These HHS poverty guidelines are the same for all lower 48 states and do not account for significantly higher local costs for health care and housing in the tristate area.

Elmont, with a population of 38,000, has a median income of $89,500 and a median property value of $369,000, according to Data USA. Poverty stands at 8 percent. To the south, the rate in neighboring Valley Stream is close to Elmont’s. But even in Garden City, with much higher income and property levels than either Elmont or Franklin Square, the poverty rate stands at slightly less than 4 percent.

“In the 21st century, and in such a wealthy country, it is a sad and unfortunate fact that so many of our neighbors go hungry,” said State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach. Kaminsky has sponsored legislation that would require state facilities to donate any excess food to local pantries, food banks or other institutions serving people in need.

New York’s 2017-18 budget might offer some respite. It includes a “farm-to-food” bill that would allow farmers to claim as much as $5,000 for donations to food banks and pantries. The total cost of the program is estimated to be roughly $50 million statewide. Gov. Andrew Cuomo twice vetoed earlier versions of the measure, despite unanimous passage in both houses of the Legislature.

“The new state budget will make our Farm and Food Bank program a reality and help farmers move even more fresh produce to those in need,”State Sen. Rich Funke, a Republican of Fairport, and one of the bill’s sponsors, said after the signing last year.

“A small tax break for farmers is a big break for New York’s hungry families relying on charitable donations to put food on the table,” added Assemblyman Francisco Moya, a Democrat of Queens, who was part of a statewide coalition backing the measure.

Whatever size the break for hungry families turns out to be, food pantries currently struggle to keep people fed. “The numbers we serve go up and down, depending on things like the weather and what’s going on at the [race] track,” said Mary Joesten, president and chairwoman of Faith Mission, a Roman Catholic charity. Faith Mission sponsors the Pope Francis Hospitality Center, which serves hot breakfast and lunch every Saturday. “In cold weather, many of the people who have to rely on walking can’t make it,” she said. “We’ve added a second ministry to take sandwiches to the men waiting outside Home Depot. But the worst is the situation for women with children. For them it’s just terrible.”