Essay: Project HOPE’s COVID story of Mana in our Desert

Project HOPE always was and always will be a movement guided by the Holy
Spirit. It began some 18 years ago because a group of teenaged volunteers heard
a presentation about the hungry in our Huntington Station community and
decided to do something about it. They even named it H.O.P.E (helping other
people eat) because they wanted to keep it simple. Project HOPE has never paid an employee, owned anything but a website and has  never even had to rent space. The Churches, Temples, Mosques, and other community-based groups we have partnered with have loaned us space along the way. We are a 100% volunteer group of people that try to help.

Over the past 18 years, the Cast of Characters has changed often, so I will not try
to compile a list of names. You are already known by those we have served and
the loving God that called you to do so. The consistent focus of our volunteers
has always been asking the question: What can I do? Not, what can I get? Even
our website was created that way. It was a late Wednesday night in 2007. We
had just finished prepping hundreds of pounds of donated food that would
become soup and chili over the next few mornings to feed the hungry on the
street. Ivan was mopping the floors in the kitchen area and asked a few of us why
Project HOPE doesn’t have a website. My quick response was that we could
never afford something like that. Ivan explained that that was what he does and
he would gladly volunteer his time to create and maintain a site for us. I took the
mop from him and said that would be a much greater use of his time. He has
since moved to New Hampshire but still maintains our site, to this day.

By January of 2020, the number of people in need of food support in our
community had thankfully diminished. The then-leaders of Project HOPE came to
the difficult consensus that, while we had a really good run of 17 years, it was
time to let our little service group wind down. We planned to donate our
remaining funds to local outreach and food service programs. Well. I have often
heard the expression that “man makes plans and God laughs” but never have I
experienced it quite like this!

March 2020

The pandemic has reached us. I remember very clearly being on my first Rotary
Club zoom meeting and listening to Carol explain how badly COVID has hit our
most vulnerable Huntington Station residents and homeless populations. There
was a desperate need to find a way to safely provide basic food items to those in
urgent need. So, Project HOPE woke back up.

First, we needed a food plan. I turned to Michael at Green Top Farms — a small
company focused on making healthy food more accessible. They taught us how
to make a simple bean salad that would provide nutrition and would not need to
stay refrigerated or have to be heated.

Second, we would need money – and a lot of it. I turned to a few people that had
helped us fundraise in the past. Paul, Andy, Joe, and Kevin answered this call in a
big way along our many Project HOPE families. The outpouring of generosity and
creative ideas to fund this initiative was overwhelming. From the end of March
until June we were able to raise more than $180,000. Prior to 2020 we never
spent more then $25,000 in a year.

In these early days of the pandemic, St. John’s Episcopal Church gave us the use of their kitchen so that we could mass produce hundreds of pounds of bean salad
and hard boil hundreds of eggs each day. We partnered with Huntington Manor
firefighters and a few other brave souls like Karl and Lucy who brought us the raw
and dry goods to prepare. They also delivered the cooked product to places like
Helping Hand mission, Tri CYA, and Family Service League — all of which never
stopped their outreach to those in need – with enhanced protocols to keep
everyone safe.

As we moved into April, we realized that food pantries were going to be in
trouble. They were unable to run traditional food drives and the number of
people asking for help was doubling every week. This was a critical pivotal
moment. It took a group of leaders including Kevin, Martine, Claudia, Andrea,
and Pilar to come up with a plan to get basic foods to a place where we could distribute to many people in a contactless, safe way. We borrowed a refrigerated
trailer that was previously used to keep kegs of beer cold from Manhattan
Beverage Company, securely stored it at the Huntington Manor Fire House and
started ordering thousands of half gallons of milk and dozens of eggs along with
hundreds of pounds of beans, rice, and oats that we bought wholesale.

Our major distribution sites were at Manor Field and St. Hugh of Lincoln Church
and were organized by people who work for the Town of Huntington, Suffolk County police, Suffolk County and other churches and temples that came together to distribute safely to the hundreds of families that lined up in cars or on foot every
Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. There were also smaller distribution sites that
we helped at Tri CYA. Helping Hand Rescue Mission, Huntington Senior Center,
Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Long Island Christian, Joshua Baptist Church, and The Assembly of God Church. We were spending thousands of dollars a week and, as we were coming to the end of May, the funds were getting low.

USDA boxes and Grants

In late May, two new doors opened for us. The first one came from our friends at
Green Top Farms. They were awarded one of the first USDA contracts to
distribute boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables. They were 23-pound boxes of
wonderful fresh produce that gave us 12 weeks of initially 1,000 boxes per week
that then grew to 2,000 boxes to supplement the milk, eggs, rice and beans we
were distributing. This really helped stretch our money. This was also a time that
our circle of volunteers needed to grow, and it was getting safer to carefully do
that. Volunteers came from many congregations or personal connections but a
few like Rex, Rob, Jeff, Patti, and Mike never left and made the entire box
program possible. Each one of these produce boxes had a retail value of at least
$35. That translated into more than $600,000 worth of food.

The second door, because we were partnered with St. Vincent De Paul, was a
grant program through the Town of Huntington Community Development
Agency. This allowed us to apply for and eventually receive thousands of dollars
to reimburse money we had spent to buy the food and eventually rent a refrigerated truck when we needed to return the Manhattan Beverage Company
trailer. To date, we have received $165,000 through these grants.

As we moved into September and October, Green Top Farms was awarded a
contract for USDA mixed boxes. These were filled with dairy, meat, and produce.
They weighed about 35 pounds and had a retail value of at least $50. These
boxes had a gallon of milk, cheese, butter, chicken or smoked sausage, hotdogs,
egg products, and a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables. They were so plentiful
that we were able to stop purchasing and focus on distributing. It was at this
point that our long-term relationship with Amy and her organization, rock CAN
roll, was really instrumental. At this point, Green Top Farms was providing us with
3,500 boxes a week and a truck to move and keep the product cold. The food we
were able to distribute through this grant had a value of more than $175,000 per
week for a total of $875,000. We only needed about 2,000 boxes a week for our
Huntington area distributions, so rock CAN roll helped us share all the extra boxes
with neighboring communities in need.

Unfortunately, Green Top did not get a contract for the next USDA box program.
However, a local company — Whitson Foods –did get one of the next contracts.
This company is run by the Whitcomb family, who has very strong ties to both St.
Hugh and St. Patrick’s churches in Huntington. After we were able to become one
of their distribution partners, the flood gates opened. We were renting a
refrigerated truck at this point and were able to move 6,000 boxes a week. Our
need in Huntington was about 2,500 boxes a week. With the help of rock CAN
roll, we were able to extend our reach to as far east as Farmingville, and as far
west as Queens. These 6,000 boxes a week had a value of $300,000 a week for a
total distribution value of $1,800,000.

As we moved into 2021, Whitson did not get the next contract. But an
organization tied to one of our partners — Hungry Monk Distributers — did get
that contract. Because of the early connection to Green Top and the continued
connection to Project HOPE through rock CAN roll, we became the sole
Nassau/Suffolk partner for the January through May USDA contract.

For this contract period, we needed to offload a tractor trailer and — only because
of our relationship and partnership with the Town of Huntington — we were able
to secure an appropriate space and a forklift to make this possible. We received two tractor trailers a week with a total of over 2,000 boxes a week for 16 weeks.
That was $100,000 a week of food for a total of over $1,600,000. At this point,
the need in Huntington had diminished to about 1,000 boxes per week. We were
able to share the additional 1,000 boxes with the help of rock CAN roll.
These numbers are staggering. Through the USDA farm to family box program,
we were able to move approximately 5 million dollars worth of food to individuals
and families in our communities.

As the USDA program has ended, and food distribution has moved back to the
local pantries, we are back to purchasing only milk, eggs, rice, beans, and oats
until our funds run dry. Just this Thanksgiving week, we were able to purchase
and distribute through our partners: 1,000 half gallons of milk, 1,400 dozen eggs,
2,000 1lb bags of oats, 7,000 1lb bags of rice, and 9,000 1lb bags of beans.

I share this story because it was only possible through the generosity and faith of
our Project HOPE community that we were able to respond so fully and quickly to
this devastating crisis. We provided nutritious food throughout this past year and
a half to thousands of our brothers and sisters that had become food insecure.
God bless you all and thank you for helping us to help other people eat!!!

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