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Baldwin pantry sees increase in need

Federal grant aims to assist local food banks

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Local food pantries, including the St. Christopher’s Parish pantry in Baldwin, have been feeling the toll of the coronavirus pandemic. But Town of Hempstead officials announced last week that a $2.1 million grant for Island Harvest would help pantries such as the one at St. Christopher’s by alleviating some of their financial stresses.

The grant, town officials said in a news release, was part of the CARES Act funding that was provided by the federal government to help offset unbudgeted Covid-19 expenses incurred by organizations.

The St. Christopher’s pantry, coordinated by Outreach Director Julia Santiago, receives food and pre-packaged boxes from Long Island Cares, as well as food from Island Harvest. The pantry, at 11 Gave Ave., is open every Tuesday from noon to 3 p.m.

The facility typically offers nonperishable food items and snacks as well as clothes, shoes, feminine hygiene products, diapers and other items that people can’t usually buy with food stamps, Santiago said. It’s also one of the few local pantries to offer meat when it is available.

“I give anything and everything I can get my hands on,” Santiago said. “Toilet paper, toiletries, toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant — these are the things that people can’t buy with food stamps.”

And the effort to help those in need has tripled since the beginning of the pandemic, Santiago said last month. While she normally serves 136 families, it was close to 400 a month.

On a weekly basis, about 78 cars were visiting the pantry, each containing two or three families, she explained. In one week in May, Santiago recalled, she served 1,236 people. The least number of cars that have come is 26 in recent weeks, she added, although the numbers have gone back up since then.

“I have families with six kids, four kids, three kids,” Santiago said. “It’s upsetting that, here, in this country we have hungry people. There’s a need out there, there sure is.”

A few volunteers run the pantry, sorting, organizing and packing boxes to be loaded into visitors’ trunks. Santiago said she delivers boxes to people’s houses, too, which is ideal if family members have fallen ill.

The pantry serves residents from any community, including Lynbrook, Valley Stream, East Rockaway, Island Park and Oceanside, although Santiago said she refers residents from Freeport and Hempstead to their local pantries — Freeport has five and Hempstead has about 20 — to keep up with demand from areas that have none.

“So we’re serving a large community in Nassau County,” Santiago said. “Nassau County truly is lacking pantries.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, the pantry was inundated with people seeking food and supplies, Santiago said. The line started at the pantry, went through the parking lot, down Gale Avenue and crossed over to the Baldwin Fire Department firehouse, causing firefighters to ask what was going on. Santiago said she was giving out food.

“That was the first week we opened,” she said. “It was like, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on?’ And this was really the people who weren’t able to get through to the unemployment — they weren’t getting their money so they had no way to buy food or pay the bills. Those were the ones we helped, and we helped generously.”

Santiago was grateful for the support from Island Harvest and Long Island Cares, which delivered boxes of food for free to allow the pantry to restock. The Pink Tie charity has helped, too.

Santiago was afraid, though, as a person with many underlying health conditions, to be exposed to so many people who may have been infected with coronavirus. But she wears a face shield and a medical mask to protect herself, and disinfects surfaces regularly. Three local residents whom she used to help on a regular basis have died from Covid-19, she added.

A Freeport resident, Santiago said she has been working with St. Christopher’s pantry for about four years, and before that, with St. Anthony’s Parish in Oceanside for five years. Besides running the pantry, she performs outreach services and advocates for her neighbors, helping them find housing and apply for jobs, among other things.

“This is what I love the most, though,” she said of working with the pantry. “It’s rewarding.”

And the Rev. Nicholas Zientarski, the pastor of St. Christopher’s Church, supports and encourages the effort.

“There’s been great generosity expressed on the part of many different people in the community,” he said, adding that both parishioners and local organizations, including the Baldwin Chamber of Commerce, Gala Fresh Foods, the Pink Tie charity and Plaza Elementary School, have donated. “These places have really, over the past few months, made various contributions both in terms of money or in terms of food, and really been a great help to us here.”

To donate, drop off supplies in the shopping carts in the church near the elevator or in the box near the Merrick Road entrance. Those who wish to donate can also drop off supplies on a Tuesday when the pantry is open or call (516) 442-0932. Monetary donations are also accepted and can be mailed in or dropped off at the rectory.