Eight years ago, Rob and Mary Hallam, congregants of the Community Presbyterian Church in Malverne, started a food drive in their Lynbrook home by putting two cans of tuna in a collection box.
“If it’s meant to be, God will fill the box up,” Rob recalled saying. That year, they collected 987 items. The next year, they collected over 2,000 donations, and during the third year of the drive, they received over 3,500. This year, they gathered their biggest total, with roughly 16,000 food items, and more than $7,000 in donations. Hundreds of volunteers formed an assembly line to transfer boxes from the Hallams’ home to a truck, donated by Nassau Door & Window, which were delivered to the Long Island Council of Churches’ food pantry in Freeport on March 16.
“I know some people think I’m nuts, but it was a spiritual calling,” Rob said. “There’s no question in my mind.”
The drive is an extension of an annual food collection at Community Presbyterian, which started 15 years ago. Rob and Mary are Sunday school teachers at the church.
“We’re a small congregation, but through our annual collection we’ve been able to make a huge contribution,” said Community Presbyterian’s pastor, the Rev. Janice Moore-Caputo. “Each person has connections outside the church where it opens the possibility for anybody to be a part of this.”
The process starts in the middle of January when the Hal-lams place food-donation boxes at local storefronts, businesses and schools. They also shop three or four nights a week to start the collection at their home.
The Hallams said that February is a good time to collect food because after the holidays, there is a decline in people giving back, although the need is still there. In addition, as one of the coldest months of the year, they said that some families have to choose between paying their heating bill or buying groceries.
“There’s an awful lot of people that you wouldn’t think of as people in need,” Mary said. “These are working people that for whatever reason, they need a little extra something just to get through. When we started this we never realized how many neighbors could be affected by hunger.”
The Hallams’ drive makes them the largest individual donors to the LICC’s food pantry, according to Yolanda Murray, the organization’s pantry manager and program coordinator. “They’re not getting paid anything to do this,” Murray said. “All the work that goes into this, you wouldn’t believe that they’re not getting anything for this. They’re doing this from the goodness of their hearts.”
In addition, the Hallams raised roughly $800 through a 50/50 raffle, which went towards a new freezer for the LICC.
The Hallams attributed their close ties with the LICC to Wally Merna, who was the LICC’s emergency food center manager until he died last year. Rob said that Merna advocated for people such as the Hallams to raise awareness. “He kind of took me under his wing to get us started,” Rob said. “He saw a little bit of that Holy Spirit that was around us and the passion to make all of this possible.”
Rob also said that the real purpose behind the food pantry is to allow people to open up about why they struggle for food. Through those interactions, the Hallams hope to help people get into programs offered by the LICC that can turn their life around. He added that those people often find success and then give back to others in need.
“When you see some of the actual people that are getting help, it actually hits you,” Rob said. “People start to put identities to the food and the boxes. It’s not just a story anymore. It’s real people with real needs that are doing the best they can to stay afloat.”
Much of the food drive’s success comes from word of mouth, according to the Hallams. As a result, they have received donations from all throughout Long Island and other states such as Florida and South Carolina. “If I could sell windows and doors as well as this, I would’ve retired years ago,” he said. “But it’s the Holy Spirit that really motivates the people.”
The Hallams will continue receiving donations at their home through April. The couple said that their biggest concern is finding more storage space during their annual collection. “If that’s our worst problem, then that’s a blessing,” Rob said.