Poverty level increase on Long Island shifts focus to food insecurity

Boxes, lined along Fairground Ave., are filled with vegan and vegetarian food every Tuesday as part of Community Solidarity's Huntington food share. BRITTANY TESORIERO / MORE THAN BAGELS

By Brittany Tesoriero

Haylee Hebenstreit believes that America has a dysfunctional relationship with food. So five years ago, she decided to volunteer for a non-profit organization.

That organization’s name is Community Solidarity, an all volunteer community based organization, which prides itself on being America’s largest vegetarian hunger relief program.

“We don’t have a rights-based conception of food,” Hebenstreit said. “There’s no reason that we should have food insecurity. It’s a question of access and distribution.”

That distribution comes in many forms. Currently, services defined as emergency food pantries require certain criteria of their recipients to prove their need. These criteria can be defined as being enrolled in a program such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Women, Infants and Children (WIC). In addition, to be eligible applicants cannot exceed the federal income eligibility guidelines. This year, for a family of four, the poverty guideline is $24,600 according to data from  the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

These numbers do not compare to the average low income on Long Island, which is $72,900 for a family of three. This is in part because Long Island is one of the most expensive places to the live in the United States. In 2016, Forbes’ list of the most expensive zip codes in America included 29 from Long Island. But these expensive areas cannot compensate for the  poverty level Long Island reaching its highest since 1959, according to a recent report by Long Island Association.

However, Community Solidarity is unique. The only required materials recipients need to bring are themselves. There are no limitations as to who or how many times food can be given out.

“We’re directly serving thousands of people each week,” JB Townsend, a volunteer, said. “We’re not asking for any identification, in terms of social security number, or places where they [recipients] live.”

The reason for this is because the volunteers and founders of Community Solidarity believe that people should not be turned away from the food they need.

Four times a week volunteers and some founding members set up at five different locations spread out between Nassau and Suffolk Counties. These locations include Hempstead, Huntington, Farmingville, Wyandanch and Bedford-Stuyvesant. The shares take place every day of the week except Monday, Wednesday and Friday. On these days, the food pick-ups are scheduled.

Three of these locations, Hempstead, Huntington and Wyandanch, are considered food deserts. Food Deserts are defined as parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

With the poverty levels on the rise, the question becomes how to continue providing food to more people. A seemingly simple answer might not be the solution.

Just last month, The La Misión food pantry opened in the town of Huntington. However, the town has already issued notices for violations of unapproved signage and operating without certificate of occupancy. This food pantry allows anyone to receive food.

Since the creation of more independent food pantries is being met with opposition, those who rely on them for their vegan or vegetarian diets may have to look elsewhere for their dietary needs.

The idea of vegan and vegetarian-friendly food shares is increasingly becoming a common part of the food culture on Long Island. Jennifer Greene, director and founder of Vegan Long Island, started her group to inspire people to take their diets in a vegan-friendly direction.

A member of Greene’s group, Joseph Theis, became inspired to start a video project in reaction the misperception that vegan dieting is expensive. Theis’ project focuses on trip to the grocery store, with a vegan-friendly shopping list, on a budget.

“It’s viewed as something that is sort of an elitist diet, it’s thought to be very expensive,” Theis said. “The idea behind the project is to show that actually it’s significantly cheaper than an animal product based diet.”

Theis found that one pound of dried beans can last several meals for one person, and only costs $2 to $3 dollars.

As plant based diets increase across Long Island, so will the need to offer vegan and vegetarian friendly food pantries. The accessibility of vegan and vegetarian food pantries will continue to remain dependent on the community’s willingness be accepting of food pantries that do not operate with limitations.

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