Montauk Food Pantry…

…working triple time to help serve our community!

by Sue Giustino

Established in 1984 by Fran Ecker, Ines Fox, and Shelly Engstrom when they discovered that some children in our community came to school without sufficient food for lunch, the Montauk Food Pantry continues to play an important role here in Montauk. Located in the lower level of the St. Therese Parish Center – 67 South Essex Street, the pantry is coordinated by director Alice Houseknecht, and staffed with about thirty volunteers.

I was able to have a conversation with Alice about the needs of the pantry, as well as their increased demands due to the corona 19 pandemic. Although exhausted after putting in a full day, her obvious enthusiasm about their important work, her appreciation for the gracious donations and offers of assistance during this difficult time, gave her a second wind.

Prior to the pandemic, the Montauk Food Pantry served about 90 families. Now their distribution has tripled to about 260 families, and is expected to continue to increase.  Fortunately, they have coordinated with the East Hampton Pantry, each offering drive through pick-up on an alternating bi-weekly schedule.

Montauk’s last April pick-up was Tuesday April 28th   from 5-7:30 pm, East Hampton will be Tuesday May 5th, from 1-6pm, and so on. This enables recipients who have families to feed …to utilize both locations as needed. It seems many of the families are our seasonal workers who are out of work at a time when it usually begins to pick up again: restaurant help, hotel/motel staff, house/hotel cleaning staff, as well as care takers. The very people whom without, our booming vacation town could not survive.  “Lifting the burden of food may help.” Commented Alice.

She also made it very clear that there are many, many other people and groups involved in helping to support and care for our neighbors. One example is the sign, made by the Montauk School, posted at the top of town, advertising a phone number to call for food pantry assistance.  When called, the phone is answered by Jamie Balsam at the school, who then fields the calls for the pantry helping the callers find the help they need. Alice told me that most of the calls so far have been from people wanting to help, volunteer, and donate– “People are demonstrating Compassion.”  She noted.

This brought me to the question of what they needed to support their extraordinary efforts. Alice explained that due to the distancing restrictions she had to cut her normal crew of about 30 to a bare bones crew of only 10; gloved, masked, and working 6ft. apart.  Resulting in an ambitious crew working extra-long and hard. Although there’s been an outpouring of offers from people who want to give their time to help, she has to turn them down. In addition, an overwhelming amount of food donations have been coming in since this began.  However, although it is much appreciated, this also poses the problem of scheduling the drop off, staffing…

Alice said that the best way to show support – as many people have already been doing- is to send a check made out to the Montauk food pantry- PO Box 997, Montauk, NY 11954. This enables staff to coordinate products needed, availability of times, and staffing along with the scheduled deliveries and pick-ups.

Throughout our conversation, Alice was very reflective on the goodness and generosity shown by so many during this time. “It’s intrinsically rewarding to help others, it’s like helping ourselves at the same time.”

People throughout our community are seeking to learn the needs of food pantries and actively working on solutions; including but not limited to Facebook fundraisers and numerous individuals sending very generous donations. “Even the children are getting involved!” Alice shared. Kindergarten and first grade religious ed. classes from St. Therese made beautifully decorated birthday bags- complete with cake mix, frosting, and candles.  Four young cousins from The Kinney Family came up with the idea to make and sell bracelets- with the help of their parents- this endeavor raised $500 for the pantry!

A food pantry is not a soup kitchen, and therefore cannot prepare food.  However, since the EH senior centers closed, the East Hampton Department of Human Services are preparing and freezing meals that are being delivered to community members 60 years old and over. Those in need of assistance can call 631-329-6939 for pick-up or delivery service, Monday- Friday 8am-4pm.

East End Cares has partnered with the Clam Shell Foundation  on fundraising activities and to identify homebound people whom are then paired with a volunteer. The volunteers will shop for food and/or pharmacy needs helping to ensure that everyone is cared for.

Stressing the need to express that there are numerous organizations and individuals working in an array of capacities to lend support to families in need, essential workers, healthcare personnel, seniors…Alice mentioned a few off the top of her head, but also noted that there are so many others, and many more still in the works.

“So many blessings during these uncertain times.”  An inspirational quote from Alice Houseknecht, who herself is one of our many blessings right here in Montauk! Things may seem tough right now, and they are tougher for some than others, but we still have each other- even at a distance. Friends, family and strangers willing to do for each other whatever is needed to ensure the safety and care of their neighbors.

Thanks is not enough I know- but hopefully saying it over and over will give our volunteers, essential workers, and caregivers the reassurance that they are appreciated for their daily selfless acts of kindness.