Island Harvest: Bridging the Food Gap

Every year more than 300,000 Long Islanders turn to Island Harvest’s network of soup kitchens, food pantries and emergency services. Since its founding in 1992, Island Harvest has become the largest hunger relief organization on Long Island.

It all started when, angry that food from a convenience store was thrown away at the end of the day when a safe house for women and children in need was down street, Linda Breitstone established Island Harvest and the mission, “to end hunger and reduce food waste on Long Island.” The mission of Island Harvest today remains the same but the organization has grown into much more than just a food bank.

On Nov. 12, Long Island Pulse will join forces with some of Long Island’s top restaurants, vineyards and craft breweries for Island Tasting, an evening of small plates and drinks where all the proceeds go to Island Harvest. In advance of Island Tasting, I spoke with Island Harvest President & CEO Randi Shubin Dresner about the organization’s past, its future and how to help.

Long Island Pulse: For those that aren’t familiar, tell us a bit about Island Harvest and what the organization hopes to achieve.
Randi Shubin Dresner: It’s a food bank serving and supporting people in need all across Long Island. We were founded on the pretense that there is a lot of excess in the world but there are also many people in need. Our Chairman Emeritus Father Thomas Hartman coined the phrase: Island Harvest is the bridge between people that have excess food and those who need it. Island Harvest does so much more than just provide food. It takes much more than a can of food to end hunger.

Pulse: Let’s talk about that. How has the original mission evolved?
RSD: Ending hunger takes identifying and providing the resources that can move someone from unstable food security to stable. We know there are three main types of situations that bring people to a food bank: unemployment or underemployment, health issues and the cost of housing. We look at what are things we can do in those three areas to migrate the problem.

Pulse: What’s an example of something Island Harvest is doing in one of those areas?
RSD: With health, our partner Feeding America Network is researching the nutritional relationship between diabetes and hunger. You wouldn’t think obesity and hunger go together but there’s a high percentage of people living in poverty that are obese because the types of food that you have access to if you’re on a limited budget aren’t healthy foods. It costs society more money to take care of the medical issues that result from that. At Island Harvest over the past couple of years we’ve looked at the types of food we’re taking in and we’ve cut back on sugary products and are now working on matching products with recipes. For instance many people might turn away from cabbage but we’re teaching them how to cook it.

fall vegetables

image: shsphotography

Pulse: As you’ve cut back on accepting sugary foods what are the types of food Island Harvest is most in need of?
RSD:  High protein products: meats and beans. Produce, that’s really important and then dairy products.

Pulse: Tell us a little bit about what’s in store for Island Harvest in the next the several months.
RSD: It’s the busiest time of year for us. In the past we’ve gotten requests for more than 40,000 turkeys but in our best year we’ve only collected 12,000. That’s a huge gap and we’ll be looking to the community to bridge it.

Pulse: If someone were to ask you, “Why should I donate specifically to Island Harvest?” what would you tell him or her?
RSD: As large as we are, we pride ourselves in that people consider still consider us grassroots in that if they donate a can of food they can almost track it to the end user. When 94 cents of every $1 goes to our programs we’re highly efficient and depend heavily on volunteers.

Pulse: How many volunteers do you have? What are some the ways people who want to volunteer can help?
RSD: We have 5,000 volunteers supporting our work and we’re always looking for more. Volunteers move food, they’re assigned to pick up and drop off, they help in the office, as attorneys, graphic designers, a lot of different things.

Pulse: What does the future look like for Island Harvest in the long-term?
RSD: We’re going to be developing a lot of new programs to continue to support all the needs of those who are struggling. We’re going to expand our nutrition outreach and food matching to meet the needs of those on restricted diets such as low-salt or diabetes.

Join Island Harvest and Long Island Pulse for Island Tasting. Get your tickets today.