Local food bank is feeling the impact of COVID-19 as demand nearly quadruples

The economic and social toll of the COVID-19 pandemic is nowhere more apparent than at the local food pantries that help feed Riverhead families in need.

Open Arms Care Center, which has operated a food pantry out of the First Baptist Church of Riverhead on Northville Turnpike for 20 years, has seen demand increase “exponentially” since COVID struck, said Zona Stroy, the program president for the past 15 years.

The number of households served by Open Arms grew from 968 in 2019 to 3,109 in 2020.

“I thought it would level off a bit,” Stroy said in an interview last week. Instead, the numbers keep rising. By Sept. 4, Open Arms had served 4,000 households by 2021, she said.

“The question is just outrageous,” Stroy said. “We’re only open two hours a day, two days a week,” she noted.

“There are a lot of new visitors,” Stroy said. “I do the numbers every month. Every person who gets food fills out a sheet — it’s required by the government and the food banks,” she said.

Volunteers pack bags of groceries and place them on tables outside the church to distribute to residents in the driveway. Photo: Denise Civiletti

In 2020, in response to COVID, Open Arms became a drive-up distribution location, preventing customers from entering the building to select items from the pantry shelves.

The distribution of the drive-up will take place on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. During opening hours, the parking lot outside the church buzzes with activity as half a dozen volunteers bring out bags of canned goods from the pantries storage area inside the church and add fresh produce and perishable items to the bags from pallets lined along the sidewalk set up, and then deliver the bags of groceries to people in waiting vehicles.

“We’ve seen 40 to 50 cars every day,” Stroy said. And even that number continues to rise. The pantry has seen nearly 80 cars in one day in recent weeks.

The number of people in need is both somewhat baffling and frightening, Stroy said. “I don’t know what it is, but I don’t think it’s an easy answer,” she said.

“There are a lot of people out of work,” Stroy says. People have been laid off or stopped working for fear of the virus, she said. “There are also many people who have contracted COVID and have not fully recovered,” she said.

Stroy, a broker who works on the South Fork, said she sees both ends of the economic spectrum. “I see a lot of people who have a lot of money to buy houses in the Hamptons. And then I see a lot of people [coming to the pantry] who have no food,’ she said.

“I think the middle class isn’t middle class anymore,” said Stroy. “It needs a lot of support and that’s not visible to most people.”

More than 2.4 million New Yorkers are “food insecure,” according to Long Island Cares, a food bank that provides Open Arms Care Center — that’s one in four adults on Long Island, where about 259,000 people, including 79,000 children, don’t have enough to eat. food. More than 40% of people with food insecurity in Suffolk County are not eligible for nutritional aid programs such as SNAP. According to Long Island Cares, nearly half of the people receiving food aid, the “working poor,” are households with at least one working adult.

“We will continue to meet the need,” Stroy said.

Open Arms is an entirely volunteer organization supported by donations, as well as federal Community Development Block Grant funding distributed annually through the city of Riverhead. Food banks, such as Long Island Cares, provide most of the food the pantry distributes to those in need.

Open Arms Care Center chairperson Zona Stroy in the driveway of the food pantry last week. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Volunteers fill paper bags and cardboard boxes with food and household supplies and distribute them to people who drive to the door of the pantry near the church. In the morning[In coronavirus crisis, food pantries face increased demand with depleted resources – RiverheadLOCAL]When the pantry is in operation, vehicles line up at one of the ramps to the church parking lot in a line that extends across Northville Turnpike.

Open Arms’ most urgent need right now is for volunteers, Stroy said.

“We need people who can give a few hours,” Stroy said. It doesn’t have to be a big time investment every week. It can be different hours every week.

“If you have one or two hours a week, there’s probably a way you can help a food bank like Open Arms,” ​​Stroy said.

“We need people who can pick up 25 or 30 pounds, people who can put cans in a bag and move a 10-pound bag from this shelf to that shelf,” she said.

People interested in volunteering to help can call Open Arms at 631-727-6943.

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