It’s easy to forget, in the height of the busy summer season, that many people on the East End are struggling to put food on the table for their families.
But dedicated food pantry volunteers, like those at the 25-year-old Springs Food Pantry don’t take a summer vacation, and neither does hunger.
Every Wednesday, volunteers work one of two shifts in the fellowship hall of the Springs Community Presbyterian Church, packing fresh locally grown vegetables, milk, eggs and meat, along with shelf-stable staples, for an average of 250 visitors each week — for a total of more than 13,000 visits each year.
That’s a number that might surprise casual visitors to the Hamptons, but beyond the summer sheen of wealth that’s cast over East Hampton, the poverty rates town-wide and region-wide reflect a year-round community that’s aging into the struggles of a fixed income and is increasingly dependent on seasonal work.
According to U.S. Census statistics compiled between 2010 and 2014, 12.50 percent of the population is living below the poverty level in the “East Hampton North” census designated place, which includes Springs.
The federal poverty line for a family of four is $24,250 per year — hardly enough to even put a roof over a family’s head on the South Fork.
The Long Island Association reported early this spring that Nassau and Suffolk Counties together had a 6.7 percent poverty rate in 2015, “the highest level of poverty reported by the U.S. Census Bureau for the Long Island region since the official government poverty series began in 1959.”
But many communities on the East End have a far greater need than the overall county numbers indicate. Montauk has a 10.41 percent poverty rate. Wainscott’s poverty rate is more than 18 percent. Even Southampton Village has a poverty rate of 14.01 percent. Aquebogue’s poverty rate is 15.9 percent, while neighboring Jamesport’s is 16.59 percent.
Riverside, just south of Riverhead in Southampton Town, has the highest poverty rate in the county, with 23.73 percent of residents living below the poverty level.
By contrast, the East End communities of Peconic, West Hampton Dunes and all of Shelter Island have a zero percent poverty rate. Sagaponack, which boasts some of the most expensive real estate in the United States, has a .86 percent poverty rate.
These statistics are meaningful for the volunteers here in Springs, but what’s far more meaningful to them is the relationships they build with food recipients, bringing dignity to their lives each week by letting them chose the meals they’re most likely to eat.
The Springs Food Pantry, which hasn’t missed a week of providing food in the past 25 years, had initially given out a standard bag of food each week, providing three meals and kitchen staples like cooking oil. But they’ve recently switched to a system in which they let the recipients pick their own food.
“Now that we offer choice, they don’t take what they won’t eat,” said volunteer Anne McCann on a recent Wednesday, as clients patiently waited for the pantry to open at 4 p.m. “Our population is grateful to come here, and people don’t come to us if they don’t need us, if they have a lot of work in the summer.”
Ms. McCann and Pamela Bicket serve as coordinators of the all-volunteer food pantry, ordering food and coordinating the volunteers each week.
The visitors to the food pantry are about 70 percent Latino and 30 percent Anglo-American. Half are children and many are from fishing and farming families that had been the backbone of Springs for centuries.
“A lot of residents whose families have been here for generations have lost their stability, but I think some people would rather go hungry than come here,” said Ms. McCann. “They’re very prideful.”
Ms. McCann said pantry volunteers stopped giving out goods like canned stews and chili, long a staple of food pantries, after they realized that food pantry recipients were returning those types of items to pantry food collection bins at local stores.
They’ve found they have cut back in general on canned goods, now distributing primarily canned tuna fish, beans and fruit, which they know clients will eat.
The volunteers have also learned a lot about cultural preferences in food — for instance, many Latino families prefer to buy hot cereal than cold, even in the summer months. Fresh eggs are also an essential staple. And, she said, they’ve found that many of their Ecuadorian clients have come to love broccoli, even though broccoli doesn’t grow in Ecuador. Peanut butter, however, hasn’t taken off among their Latino clients, not even when pantry volunteers pitch peanut butter and jelly as an easy school lunch for their kids.
Share the Harvest, a program at the EECO Farm in East Hampton, provides the pantry with a great deal of fresh vegetables, along with Balsam Farms and Amber Waves Farm in Amagansett. And they’ve recently formed a partnership with Acabonac Farms, which provides the pantry with fresh grass-fed beef, and with the Amagansett Food Institute, which is helping to process the abundance of fresh summer vegetables received by the pantry into shelf-stable products that can be given out in winter.
The Springs Food Pantry serves the area that encompasses the Springs School District, and asks its clients to verify that they live in the school district and to provide identification for every member of their family that they are serving.
The church is around the corner from The Springs School, a Kindergarten through eighth grade school that is bursting at the seams and has no lunch program because it has no food preparation facilities. Ms. McCann said that, in the winter months, many families come straight from school to the food pantry.
An anonymous couple donates prepackaged snack foods each week, and Ms. McCann said kids’ faces light up when they walk through the food pantry and get to the table of snacks.
“They want the kids to have snacks to bring to school just like any other kid,” she said of the donors.
The pantry was helped along in the past year by a $4,500 grant from Suffolk County and a $2,000 grant from East Hampton Town, but those grants only cover a small portion of what is needed to provide more than 39,000 meals each year. And the need is growing — the pantry has seen an 11 percent increase in visitors over last year in the first half of 2018.
The Springs Food Pantry is accepting donations online at www.springsfoodpantry.com.