Published in Newsday
"Food relief group could use better wheels to bring vegetarian offerings to the needy"
BY MORGAN LYLE
Special to Newsday, printed Sunday May 3rd, pages G2-G3 Newsday
Community Solidarity Inc., also known as Long Island Food Not Bombs, gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “take a load off.”
On a recent Thursday evening in Farmingville, as volunteers from the nonprofit vegetarian food share program hustled to unload more than a dozen carloads of surplus food donated by supermarkets, Krystyna Compton of Kings Park chuckled and gestured toward her sagging black sedan.
“This is a loosely packed car,” Compton, 30, said as her fellow volunteers hauled out boxes of fresh asparagus and cut flowers donated by the Whole Foods Market specialty store in Jericho. The entire passenger compartment, back- seat and trunk were full, but there were still a few inches between the top of the food and the roof of the car.
Cramming food for Long Island’s hungry into personal vehicles has become a spe- cialty of volunteers for Com- munity Solidarity, who have been picking up Dumpster- bound groceries at Long Is- land supermarkets and distrib- uting them at no charge to the public for nine years.
The group was featured in the April 2014 installment of the Volunteer Nation series, and Newsday checked in with the group recently to find out what its volunteers have been up to.
The group’s mission is tough on volunteers’ vehicles. Relying on cars also limits the nonprofit’s ability to respond quickly when store officials call — sometimes late at night — to offer an overstock deliv- ery or report a fridge on the fritz, both of which would result in large quantities of edible food being discarded.
So Community Solidarity is raising money for a truck, crowdsourcing donations at veganfoodrescue.com.
“At least a couple times a week there’s something that happens, like a refrigerator goes down or there’s a prob- lem with a truck and there’s tens of thousands of pounds of food that has to be picked up right away,” said Jon Stepa- nian, 31, a Huntington resident who began rescuing and sharing food in 2006 and incorporated the nonprofit in 2010. From the outset, the group has considered itself part of the national Food Not
Bombs movement, which was started in 1980 by a group of anti-nuclear activists in Cam- bridge, Massachusetts.
The truck and a year’s worth of maintenance will cost $60,000, the group estimates.
Even with a truck, the group would still need volunteers with vehicles, such as Carlos Argueta of Nesconset, who hauled boxes of donated ba- nanas and apples and other food to the Farmingville “share,” as the weekly food distributions are known.
“There’s a lot of people who need stuff,” Argueta, 40, said, waiting to unload his pickup truck as locals gathered with empty boxes and shopping bags on a small public plaza on Horseblock Road. “And it’s good stuff. If we didn’t use it, they’d throw it out.”
Waste is a fact of life in the modern food supply chain, Stepanian said. Supermarkets, primarily Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, and local farm stands are willing to donate food that would otherwise be discarded.
Donating stores must scan each bar-coded item and weigh each fruit and vegetable before handing them over.
“It takes two or three hours at each store,” Stepanian said. Community Solidarity is re- quired by the Internal Reve- nue Service to keep careful track of how much it collects and distributes.
The group has developed a mobile phone app to log in donations. The same app can monitor the nutritional value of the distributed food, Stepa- nian said. Community Solidari- ty’s food tends to score highly on the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index, or ANDI, used by Whole Foods, he added. The index rates foods by their nutritional value and gives the highest scores to fresh fruits and vegetables.
In Farmingville, volunteers distributed more than 9,800 pounds of food, with a whole- 4 sale value of $23,355, to a crowd Stepanian estimated at between 80 and 100. Volunteers seek to parcel out the food evenly; that night, a typical recipient received 11 apples, eight packaged items from the grocery table, three loaves of bread, a bunch of bananas and 4 pounds of potatoes, he said.
“Most of the people who come here work at least one job. Many have two jobs,” Stepanian said. “This gives them the ability to not spend every last dime they have on food.”
About 3,500 volunteers work for Com- munity Solidarity each month, Stepanian said, contributing anywhere from an hour to 20 hours per week. Along with food, the group usually has used clothing, books and school supplies available at events. Shares sometimes feature people who help recipi- ents sign up for public assistance, low-cost cellphones or other services.
Ramiro Crespo, who is both a volun- teer and a recipient, said the Thursday night shares make a big impact on the lives of people in Farmingville and near- by towns.
“It’s very important to the community, to save some money,” said Crespo, 37, a Farmingville resident who has come to shares on and off for four years.
The all-volunteer Community Solidari- ty has doubled its activity every year for the past three years, but still serves only about 2 percent of the 80,000 to 110,000 people estimated to experience food insecurity in Nassau and Suffolk, Stepa- nian said.
Community Solidarity gets many re- quests to open new shares, and will start another in the coming year, Stepanian said. Contenders include Brentwood, Riverhead, Uniondale, Jackson Heights and Sag Harbor.
Ultimately, the group aims to promote self-sufficiency.
“We want to teach people in the com- munity how to rescue food themselves and organize their own shares, or orga- nize clothing drives on their own, orga- nize projects with kids in the community, or speak up on an issue,” Stepanian said. “We want to give them the tools they need to start off with and let them go on their own.”