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Fresh food pantry coming to Island — Southold organization’s van to be on site twice a month

Until the pandemic struck in January 2020, 65 Islanders, members of 26 households and families, would take the ferry to Greenport to a free food pantry, some making the trip once a week, but most twice a month.

When the pantry, operated by CAST (Community Action Southold Town), moved to Main Road in Southold, the Islanders were shut out of some essentials needed for a healthy diet. It was either plan to get to Southold somehow, and much less frequently, at greater expense, or do without.

The Islanders went to CAST in Greenport to supplement their food supplies with fresh vegetables, milk, cheese, butter, yogurt and other perishable items that are not available at the pantry located in the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church Hall.

Now, after two years, starting Monday, March 7, those Islanders combating food insecurity for themselves and their families will be supported by CAST’s van, acting as a mobile food pantry, bringing fresh food. It’s slated to be on the Island twice a month on Mondays and will be parked near the “Tot Lot” off School Street.

Supported by government grants, CAST is required to provide people with a simple “intake sheet” to fill out asking for basic information. Looking at that data, CAST officials saw the number of Islanders using their services and decided the van could be used to help them with fresh food.

School Nurse Mary Kanarvogel, who has helped CAST with planning and logistics for the mobile pantry’s Island debut, said the location was chosen because it’s a bit out of the way and not in a busy area. Cathy Demeroto, executive director of CAST said, “Mary and the school have been great helping to get this started.”

The hours for the mobile pantry will be from 3 to 6 p.m. “It will be open for parents picking up their kids from school and those who are working here but live elsewhere,” Ms. Kanarvogel said.

Ms. Demeroto said that a client support specialist will be on hand with the food van to help people with “other needs, like how to apply for emergency aid for electricity, heating oil and other services.”

English and Spanish will be spoken, and there will be bilingual flyers explaining the other services CAST provides at the Southold location, such as clothing and household items; essential education programs for both children and adults, including English as a Second Language courses; private meeting/interview spaces; a teaching kitchen for culinary and hospitality training; a community garden to grow fresh food; as well as arts and cultural programs.

CAST’s involvement is a welcome addition to the Island’s pantry and the Senior Center Nutrition Program, which are lifelines here for those in need or suffering 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.

The pandemic has hit this region hard, with a lack of nourishment for adults and children being one of the grimmest byproducts of the public health emergency. According to Long Island Cares, a food bank serving Long Island, the number of people it serves spiked 72% in the first 18 months of the pandemic, and overall food insecurity went up 20%.

According to Feeding America, a non-profit, nation-wide organization of food banks, 259,000 people on Long Island, including 79,000 children, are missing meals due to lack of money.

But it’s not just the pandemic that is causing Islanders to struggle to make ends meet, Ms. Kanarvogel has said. “It’s always been here, before COVID,” she added.

The idea for the van came out of necessity two years ago, Ms. Demeroto said, when clients were quarantined because of the pandemic and had no access to food. Suffolk County used CAST as a referral for emergency food services.

The pantry has a program called “Farm to Friend,” with 16 local farms — including Sylvester Manor Educational Farm — providing fresh produce.

About 34 million people, or 10.5% of the nation’s population, lived below the official poverty level in 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and half of the households receiving food assistance included at least one employed adult. Half of those households have reported making choices between paying rent or utilities and buying food.

Ms. Demeroto noted that the cost to CAST to have the mobile pantry on the Island twice a month is estimated to be $80,000 a year through grants and donations. For those who would like to contribute, go to castnorthfork.org/, or phone 631-477-1717 for more information.