Featured Story

Getting enough to eat on Shelter Island; fighting food insecurity

As reported last week, Shelter Island Town and Shelter Island School have teamed up to provide take-away breakfasts and lunches for those in need.

And there is a need, with some individuals and families suffering here from food insecurity, which is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.

Superintendent of Schools Brian Doelger, Ed.D., said that during the school year, 30% of the students receive free or reduced-cost meals at school.

The meals initiative, called the Summer Feeding Program, is paid for with state and federal funds. Shelter Island receives assistance in running the program through the Riverhead School District, Mr. Doelger said.

Town employee Debbie Brewer, who organizes the program at the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church’s Food Pantry, where the meals are picked up, said the breakfasts usually consist of milk, chocolate milk, cereal and fruit, and lunches are normally sandwiches, chips, milk and fruit.

The meals can be picked up at the Food Pantry at the Presbyterian Church, located at 32 North Ferry Road, on Mondays and Wednesdays from noon to 3 p.m., Ms. Brewer said. Mondays people can receive two breakfasts and two lunches per person. On Wednesdays, three breakfasts and three lunches will be given per person, but that’s not a strict regulation.

“If a family of five needs it, we give it to them,” Ms. Brewer said.

She then voiced something that every person the Reporter spoke to said about food programs here. “People on Shelter Island are proud, and don’t want to be seen as taking something to help them,” she said. “I wish more people would come. We make it completely anonymous. It concerns me people won’t come. Even if you’re not down and out, but just need a boost, we can help.”

Not Nebraska

The pandemic has hit this region hard, with a lack of nourishment for adults and children the grimmest byproduct of the public health emergency. According to Long Island Cares, a food bank serving Long Island, the number of LIC clients has spiked 72% since mid-March, and overall food insecurity has gone up 20%.

But the town/school food program here, and people struggling to make ends meet, is not just because of the pandemic, said School Nurse Mary Kanarvogel. “It’s always been there, before COVID,” she added.

Ms. Kanarvogel said being part of a low-income family is particularly difficult on Shelter Island, noting that qualifying for free or reduced-cost meals is pegged to the federal government’s poverty line, defined by income, and percentages at and below that line. This year, the poverty line for a family of three is $21,720.

“In Nebraska, you might be able to make it on that,” Ms. Kanarvogel said, “but with the high cost of living here, I don’t how people do it.”

She spoke about the Island tradition of hard-working residents, of family members holding down multiple jobs to keep financially afloat and, again, how proud people were to live and send their children to school here.

“It’s a good thing, to have that feeling, but it shouldn’t be an embarrassment to get help,” she said.

In her role as school nurse, she said she sees the effects of food insecurity on the children she comes in contact with, and often quietly intervenes. “We have a whole array of support, from the Lions Club to the churches,” she said. “We can set them up with an IGA card.”

She was part of a staff that delivered food to families after the school shut down and has continued this summer. “People are grateful,” she said. “And the kids are happy to see people from the school after being away.”


It’s not just families with young children who are down on their luck and stung by food insecurity. According to the latest government figures, 4.3% of Islanders are living in poverty, compared with the national average of 13.1%. The demographic breakdown shows that women are the group suffering most, with those between the ages of 55 to 64 leading the list, followed by those between the ages of 35 to 44, and then ages 18 to 24.

The town’s Senior Center Director Laurie Fanelli isn’t surprised by those numbers, especially the older ones who are experiencing perilous times. “Women are outliving men and some are suffering,” she said.

Her work, she added, includes guiding women and men on money management “and serving those with chronic illness.” The Center’s staff assists people with paperwork to document they’re at certain poverty levels, so they can become eligible for Medicaid to pay for long-term care facilities.

For many senior citizens on the Island, food programs run by the Center are life savers.

Karin Bennett directs the Senior Nutrition Program, providing hot and well-balanced meals for the Island’s elderly. When the coronavirus forced home isolation for all Islanders, all meals were delivered, which was a godsend for many of the Island’s oldest residents.

There’s been no shortage of food for the programs, Ms. Bennet said, with purchases and donations and also help from the Shelter Island Action Alliance, an organization that takes donations to pay local restaurants for meals to be delivered to seniors or those in need on the Island.

“There have been no real hitches,” in the food programs, Ms. Bennett said. “The volunteers have been wonderful and everyone has been so generous.”

For more information on how to make donations to the Shelter Island Action Alliance, write to [email protected] or call 631-806-5458 (Brett Surerus) or 646-415-2792 (Alex Graham). For questions on the town/school partnership providing breakfasts and lunches, or to contribute to the Island’s Food Pantry, email [email protected] or [email protected]