by Kevin Urgiles and Arielle Martinez
Alexandra Hurtado sits on a cold cement stoop at Triangle Park, with both hands inside the sleeves of her hot pink velveteen sweater, waiting for the food to arrive.
The 30-year-old woman from Ecuador makes $600 every 15 days. Hurtado has been coming to the Food Not Bombs food share in Farmingville for four years because it helps feed her family of four, and she has become part of the community over the years.
“I came here to get food at first, but I noticed that they needed help so I have been helping them with what I can since,” Hurtado said. “I have heard of how big the Thanksgiving food share can get, but it’s far for me to get to.”
Long Island Food Not Bombs, a grassroots food share program under the nonprofit organization Community Solidarity, is gearing up for the Thanksgiving season.
This year, the community will hold the tenth annual Thanksgiving Bonanza, a weeklong series of events leading up to Vegan Thanksgiving, the largest food share of the year. It will take place in the parking lot of the Hempstead train station on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Thousands of people attend the Vegan Thanksgiving each year, Melissa Hebenstreit, a four-year Food Not Bombs volunteer, said.
“Vegan Thanksgiving is our most hectic day just because of how many people show up to get food,” Hebenstreit said. “If you think the one in Farmingville gets crazy you haven’t seen anything yet.”
The international Food Not Bombs website lists over 500 chapters around the world. Each chapter finds a way to collect food and redistribute it to those in need, Vincent Cocca, 31, of Plainview, who was a Food Not Bombs volunteer for several years, said.
Some chapters look through the trash of restaurants and stores for usable food, but the Long Island chapter collects food near its expiration date from stores like as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.
About 7.5 percent of Suffolk County’s population and 6.5 percent of Nassau County’s population lived in poverty from 2009 to 2013, according to the U.S. Census website. The program holds weekly food shares in Coram, Hempstead, Huntington, Farmingville, Wyandanch and Bedford-Stuyvesant.
“The volunteers believe that food is an absolute right,” Cocca said. “We don’t believe that food should cost anything. We’re not against food costing something, but we don’t think it should have to.”
The Long Island chapter received about 3 million pounds of donated food last year, Jon Stepanian, a 31-year-old Huntington resident who has volunteered with Food Not Bombs over the past 15 years, said. The program also distributes donated clothing, books and school supplies.
During the Thanksgiving season, Food Not Bombs collects and distributes thousands of pounds of these goods. Last year the Vegan Thanksgiving had about 400 volunteers and about 6,000 participants, Stepanian said.
The Long Island Food Not Bombs community does not distribute meat to demonstrate its commitment to nonviolence and because vegetarian and vegan food is able to be accepted by people of different cultures who show up to the shares, Stepanian said. Vegetarian and vegan food is a healthy way to fulfill dietary needs.
“Protein is a major concern when avoiding animal flesh but easily consumed via beans, dairy, eggs and some grains. A person following a vegan dietary pattern can also supplement with protein powder and other plant-based protein sources,” Leah Holbrook, the coordinator of graduate nutrition programs in the Department of Family, Population and Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University, said. “Therefore, healthful foods that are plant-based are a quality addition to whatever other sources of calories these individuals are receiving.”
Vegan Thanksgiving does not usually run into many problems besides crowd management, Haley Hebenstreit, a veteran Vegan Thanksgiving volunteer and Melissa’s wife, said. However, the circumstances that come with working in low-income areas can be apparent.
“We’re in locations that are disadvantaged so you have people who are sometimes under the influence while we work,” Hebenstreit said. “I mean we are in their location, but when something happens near a share, even though it is not in the share, it can be looked at as our fault.”