A team of more than a dozen volunteers work the assembly line, packing up 35-pound boxes filled with cereal, peanut butter, milk and fruit for low-income seniors while construction crews install a massive 4,300-square-foot freezer that will soon be stocked with meat and other frozen foods. 

Island Harvest Food Bank’s new 43,000-square foot warehouse in Melville, which will host its official grand opening Thursday, is nearly double the size of its former headquarters in Hauppauge, with additional office space for training programs, cooking demonstrations and computer training.

The $8.1 million facility on Spagnoli Road, which first opened early last year, is greatly needed in the community, officials said.

With inflation continuing to dig a deeper hole in the pockets of Long Islanders, and many still struggling with the aftereffects of the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity is a growing problem in the region.

“The demand is going up and so the need for our services are going up,” said Randi Shubin Dresner, president and chief executive of Island Harvest, adding that the cost to purchase, deliver and distribute food in the community has also skyrocketed. “Even though it’s costing us more money, more people need our services. It’s similar to what happened during the pandemic. And every other crisis that we respond to. We are literally living through a crisis every day when we are dealing with the crisis of hunger.”

Inside Island Harvest's new Melville building and warehouse on Wednesday.

Inside Island Harvest’s new Melville building and warehouse on Wednesday.
Credit: Howard Schnapp

At the height of the pandemic, Island Harvest was serving about 600,000 Long Island families and moving 18 million pounds of food annually — roughly double the number of customers and food distributed before the COVID crisis. 

And while demand has declined somewhat since mid-2020 — Island Harvest is on pace to distribute 14-16 million pounds of food this year — Dresner said the high cost of groceries, gasoline and home heating oil are driving many Long Islanders to one of the hundreds of soup kitchens, shelters, food banks, religious organizations or schools associated with the group.

“There were many people who were doing OK, covering their expenses and just making it through,” she said. “Now they have to find an additional $20, $30, $40 or $50 at the supermarket and … at the gas tank,” she said. “Where’s that money coming from? … There are many parents that are giving up meals so that their children can eat and then there are others that are making some really tough decisions.”

Other major Long Island food pantries are experiencing similar demand.

Paule Pachter, chief executive officer of Long Island Cares-The Harry Chapin Regional Food Bank in Hauppauge, said, in recent months, they’ve seen a 15% spike in visitors to regional food bank for assistance.

“With the rise in inflation, we have already assisted an additional 32,000 Long Islanders turning to the emergency food network for the first time in just the past four months,” he said. “Our food costs continue to increase due to inflation. Last year, we were able to purchase food at 89 cents per pound, and today, we’re paying $1.35 per pound on average.”

The new warehouse — the group continues to maintain warehouse space in Calverton and Uniondale — has allowed Island Harvest to store significantly more pallets of nonperishable food items and fresh produce while increasing its freezer space by more than 600%. 

But the facility has other advantages. Island Harvest has doubled its staffing to 65 employees, begun a home delivery program, created a workforce development program and will initiate a culinary demonstration center focused on healthy eating. And on Thursday, Island Harvest will open a new on-site market where residents can come in and pick up bags of food directly.

The mission, Dresner said, is to end hunger on Long Island.

“Our programming is not just about the food we’re giving out,” Dresner said. “The whole concept of the work we’re doing is that we want to help people for today, tomorrow and into the future. Just giving someone a can of food is not going to end hunger. But it’s going to help us with the start.”