Volunteers at Open Arms Care Center distribute bags and boxes of food and household necessities two days each week outside First Baptist Church of Riverhead. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Long Island food banks and local food pantries are alarmed by the governor’s proposal to cut funding for a key program that supports the work of these organizations statewide to feed hungry New Yorkers by nearly 40% in the coming fiscal year.

Gov. Kathy Hochul’s executive budget proposes cutting $22 million from the Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program, wiping out last year’s funding increase and returning the program to its pre-pandemic funding level of $34.5 million.

Food bank operators across the state were advocating for an increase in funding to about $65 million to offset inflationary increases in food costs, Gregory May of Island Harvest said yesterday.

As inflation drives food costs up, more families are turning to local food pantries for assistance, Michael Haynes of Long Island Cares – The Harry Chapin Food Bank said yesterday.

“We’ve seen the number of people accessing our community satellites increase by 58%,” Haynes said, adding that’s in line with the experience of agencies supplied by L.I. Cares and the region’s other major food bank, Island Harvest.

The Open Arms Food Pantry in Riverhead is a case in point.

Open Arms Food Pantry director Zona Stroy said the pantry served “almost 500 new households – people who had not been to Open Arms pantry before.”

The all-volunteer Open Arms pantry, which works out of space at First Baptist Church of Riverhead distributed food to 1,786 households in January, Stroy said. The distribution takes place only two days a week, for a total of 16 to 20 hours a week, she said.

“The numbers just keep going up,” Stroy said. “It really is incredible and we don’t see it changing.”

May said Island Harvest’s preliminary numbers this year show that, while demand is lower than it was at the peak of the pandemic, it’s still significantly higher than it was pre-pandemic.

“There’s more need now than before the pandemic,” May said. “We’re concerned that this is the new normal.”

In addition to inflation woes and increased demand, the temporary pandemic boost in federal SNAP benefits will come to an end next month, further squeezing food-insecure working families.

“It’s kind of like the perfect storm,” Haynes said in an interview Tuesday.

The governor’s budget proposal would also keep funding flat at $50 million for Nourish New York, a successful program initiated during the pandemic that enables farmers to get food to food banks, Haynes said. 

Nourish New York money goes to farms and other producers, including fishermen.

“Farmers got crushed by COVID. Long Island fisherman were reeling,” Haynes said.

“Over 4,000 New York farms, and millions of our hungry neighbors, have benefited from this program,” he said.

Food banks statewide are calling on the state to increase this program from $50 million to $75 million in the next budget. 

All stakeholders have an opportunity to have their voices heard now, as lawmakers negotiate a final budget with the governor, Haynes said.

Feeding New York State, a statewide coalition of food banks, is organizing a campaign to let lawmakers understand that the needs of hungry and food-insecure New Yorkers remain elevated. The coalition is asking the public to use their online email form to demand that the state budget fund HPNAP at $63 million and fund Nourish New York at $75 million. The email form can be accessed here.

Haynes is also asking the public to call the governor’s office (518-474-8390) and their local state representatives (Assembly Member Jodi Giglio, Assembly Member Fred Thiele and State Senator Anthony Palumbo in the local area) to urge them to support this funding.

“New York has a track record of stepping up,” Haynes said yesterday. The governor’s budget proposal does not prioritize the needs of New York’s food insecure, its food banks, and its farmers, he said. “and we’re calling on the state to step up again now.”

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