Amid the hope that comes with both business reopening efforts and the daily flip of the calendar that brings true summer ever closer, there is the reality that the coronavirus pandemic has hit the East End of Long Island on countless levels, and that there is still a great deal of work to do and aid to give. Nonprofit groups and community-service organizations are facing growing needs and unpredictable futures, and the crisis has struck local food pantries particularly hard, where people are coming in search of help in unprecedented numbers.
“By this time of the year we would normally see it slowing down, as seasonal workers would be going back to work,” says Vicki Littman, the chairperson of the East Hampton Food Pantry. “But the need keeps growing. During the first two weeks of April we fed 1,039 individuals. In May, those numbers tripled! People are so grateful, they call us their ‘food pantry family.’ Many who were once our donors are now our clients.”
The numbers of families and individuals experiencing food insecurity continue to rise, along with the cost to supply groceries. Heart of the Hamptons, the pantry serving the Southampton community, reports staggering numbers. Over a two-month period in April and May 2019, its food costs were slightly more that $3,000. In that same period this year, food costs exceeded $70,000.
With a growing local humanitarian crisis underway, Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman and Bridgehampton resident Dan Shedrick, with help from State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, initiated a public/private partnership to “Feed the Need” under the All for the East End (AFTEE) banner.
AFTEE already had a long history of helping the community. Founded in 2013, its mission was to support the more than 1,000 nonprofit organizations on the East End that make this community a better place for the people to live and work. The model was simple: develop a pool of money that would be available to any nonprofit through a grant process, in partnership with the Long Island Community Foundation/AFTEE Fund.
The original founder, Myron Levine, developed the idea after an outpouring of community compassion following a tragic tractor accident at Quail Hill farm that took the life of a family member. Levine wanted some way to give back to the beautiful East End and support its quality of life for all residents. Some may remember the AFTEE fundraising concert the summer of 2013, featuring Avicii, Adam Lambert and Nile Rodgers, which took place at Martha Clara Vineyards. Money was raised and several rounds of grant-making took place, helping dozens of local organizations.
Fast forward to 2020—same mission, but a different time and a rapidly growing economic crisis caused by COVID-19. Restaurants and businesses closing, people losing jobs and income, and the local food pantries beginning to experience pressures never before seen. Fundraising had to shift into high gear with a clear focus to “Feed the Need.” AFTEE, with its unique mandate among local organizations to support all five East End towns, was positioned to take on fundraising that would benefit the entire community. The Town of Southampton was the first to step up, with funding of $150,000. Shinnecock Hills followed with $100,000, as did The Bridge, and the Willem De Kooning Foundation donated $50,000. There have also been a number of very generous anonymous donors.
“We moved fast,” says Claudia Pilato, AFTEE Board President. “We began requesting contributions and found overwhelming generosity. And funds continue to arrive from all areas of the community. Credit card donations through aftee.org have been steady, and checks show up at our P.O. box. We are witnessing real kindness and concern for those in need.
“Because AFTEE is aware of the needs across our region,” Pilato adds, “we have been able to support not only the more established pantries but those that have emerged to care for at-risk communities who don’t have the same access to funding, especially in Flanders and Riverhead.”
Thus far, AFTEE has provided grants to more than 30 organizations totaling more than $500,000. A grant committee, consisting of one member of each of the five East End towns, meets on a weekly basis to review and approve grants. Any nonprofit organization on the East End dealing with food instability or other emerging issues caused by the pandemic can submit a grant request at aftee.org.
AFTEE has no paid staff, but it does have a fully engaged and proactive board of directors and a community outreach committee that includes pantry and community leaders. And although this crisis and the needs are immediate, the organization has made it clear that it is here for the long term. “The needs will evolve, but we should not expect the problems to evaporate,” notes Pilato. “‘Normal’ will look very different going forward, and our community will continue to need our support.”