I can sum up why more than 74,000 Long Islanders have visited Long Island Cares-The Harry Chapin Food Bank or a local emergency food pantry for the very first time within the past four months in one word – unemployment. I can also confidently predict why an additional 50,000 people will be added to the census of 259,000 Long Islanders struggling with food insecurity as we begin 2021 in one word – unemployment. The COVID-19 pandemic has pulled the rug out from under people that had jobs, and our neighbors who live from paycheck-to-paycheck to the point that tens of thousands of Long Islanders are getting some of their foods from large drive-through distribution events, visiting 321 food pantries that are open from Floral Park to East Hampton, or at any one of Long Island Cares’ pop-up food distribution centers.
It’s difficult to determine if the additional fiscal relief approved by Congress has made life any easier for people that have lost their jobs due to COVID-19. Most of the people receiving unemployment assistance or those that benefitted from any stimulus package, have not used the money to improve the economy. They have needed the extra cash to pay their rent, mortgage, medical expenses, and other essential needs. While during the first 2-3 months of the pandemic we saw some humanitarian efforts to provide a grace period for people to delay paying their rent or a car payment, we now see that bills are coming due. At the same time that people are losing their jobs, we’re also seeing some businesses close such as Pier One Imports and Modell’s on Long Island, putting even more people out of work, and forcing them to wait in line for emergency food.
While food distributors, supermarkets, and food wholesalers are doing fine due to the increased demand and purchasing from food banks, the same can’t be said for restaurants, movie theaters, amusement parks, hotels and other businesses that remain closed, or have been operating with reduced hours and occupancy. While some businesses are holding on, others are letting go and closing down leaving even more people unemployed and food insecure. Unless the United States implements a comprehensive national plan to curtail the spread of the Coronavirus and stops politicizing the use of face masks, social distancing and treatment options, unemployment and food insecurity will continue to increase in our region.
As some states continue to open slowly and safely, people will be able to return to work. However, it will also require that the business community rehires the people they furloughed but, timing is not on the side of the employee. Businesses are seeing some fiscal benefits toward reducing their workforce and allowing staff to work remotely if they are going to survive past this year. Therefore, many Long Islanders are living in limbo not knowing if they will ever return to their current jobs, or if they will be reliant upon food pantries for the next 4-8 months just to feed their families. The long-term and successful recovery from COVID-19 will require that we produce a safe and effective vaccine, maintain our vigilance by wearing masks, social distancing and washing our hands frequently to avoid spreading the virus. It will also require that people return to work, and sadly, we’re not there yet.
Originally published in the HIA-LI Reporter, August, 2020