May 12, 2024

Food insecurity on Long Island: The struggle to make ends meet just above SNAP thresholds

By Tiffany Cusaac-Smith and Maureen Mullarkey

Updated May 13, 2024 8:26 am

Read on Newsday

As dusk approaches sunrise, Tangaligua Ivory usually can be found at a post office distribution center, operating forklifts and other machinery to haul heavy packages toward their final destinations. 

Once the parcels are categorized, Ivory, 34, briefly stops at her one-bedroom Melville apartment to help her 15-year-old daughter get ready for school. After the two say their goodbyes, Ivory is not done yet. She’s off to her part-time job at the MLK Center in Rockville Centre — a community center that offers youth programs and a food pantry.

The schedule is grueling, but it pays for the roughly $2,200 monthly rent for the apartment, and helps cover the electricity and gas bills.

What is often left by the wayside is food. To fill the gap, she applied for food assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in 2017 and multiple times since 2020. But she was denied those benefits.

“I work two jobs, and I can barely make it,” she said. “So, when I go to apply for SNAP benefits, and they’re like, ‘Oh, you make too much money.’ I’m like, how?”

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Many Long Islanders face a similar conundrum. They earn salaries that could be sustainable in some other parts of the country. But on Long Island, with its high cost of living, they still have difficulty putting food on the table. And their salaries sometimes exceed the income limits to get SNAP food benefits.

Formerly known as food stamps, the program has been instrumental in staving off hunger for millions. But experts say it is also ripe for changes to make it easier to apply for the benefit and more applicable to people who live in regions with high costs of living.

Together, this equation often leaves struggling residents in a dilemma. They either depend on steady visits to a food bank, and eat cheaper, less healthy foods — or go without.

Long Island is “a very hard place to live — and the choices that families have to make to make ends meet — it’s pretty tough,” said Michael Haynes with Long Island Cares — the Harry Chapin Regional Food Bank, one of the largest organizations offering food assistance in the region.

Moreover, there is the perception that food insecurity is not prevalent on Long Island — a place often noted for its pockets of affluence, said Vanessa Baird-Streeter, president and CEO of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island.

“People really don’t think that, you know, food insecurity — or the need for food, really exists within suburban areas,” she said.

Food insecurity on the rise on LI

The coronavirus pandemic and its ensuing job losses helped to open a window on the prevalence of food insecurity nationally and on Long Island. Many who could previously afford to put food on the table found themselves at food pantries and applying for SNAP benefits.

To live on Long Island, a family of four should have an income of roughly $100,000 for “basic necessities,” according to a 2022 report from the Suffolk County Legislature’s Welfare to Work Commission.

Conversely, SNAP benefits are guided by thresholds that include an annual gross income limit of $45,000 in New York for a family of four, according to the state’s website.

For a household with an elderly or disabled person with dependent care expenses, the annual income limit for a family of four is $60,000.

The gap between the income thresholds and the cost of living on Long Island leaves many people without enough to buy the basics, according to policy experts, advocates and others.

In Suffolk County, 40% of the approximately 80,000 food-insecure residents earned above the gross income SNAP threshold in New York in 2021, according to Feeding America, a food bank network that operates across the country. That threshold is 200% above the poverty line. 

In Nassau, there are similar numbers, with 39% of the roughly 60,000 food-insecure residents above that same threshold in the same year, the organization said.

Sharon Sheppard, the founder of Sharon’s Food Pantry and assistant director of the MLK Center, said that of the almost 140 families it serves, about 60% have applied and were denied SNAP benefits.

“You might see somebody with a nurse’s uniform [on] …, knowing that they work, and you’re saying to yourself, ‘Why are they on line?’ ” Sheppard said.

When Debbie Loesch looks out at the people who fill up the lines at her Angels of Long Island pantry and farmers market in Mastic, she also notices many dual-income families.

“By the time they pay that $3,800-a-month rent, car insurance, heating oil, at the end of the month, there’s no money left,” Loesch said.

And food is often on the cutting block.

But the pantry, decorated with a burnt-orange painted ceiling and hanging wicker baskets, hopes to bring those food options back into households. It operates as a free general store to the public, allowing its patrons to choose from items such as fresh produce and dairy and baked goods.

When the pantry opened in January, Loesch and her staff received an influx of families on their walk-in line, sometimes snaking outside around the corner hours before its 10 a.m. opening. She thought in a few months, the number of people would decrease.

It hasn’t.

Food banks a regular stop for some

About 15 years ago, food banks and pantries were more likely to be used for emergencies — places one would go when they faced acute crises like a sudden job loss or medical leave, said Jessica Rosati, vice president of programs and community service at Long Island Cares.

Their role since has shifted.

“We’re serving the people who need it the most, but then we’re serving additional people that are equally in need but are not eligible for government support,” she said.

Between January and most of April, Long Island Cares’ five satellite offices saw more than 17,000 visits — some of which can be the same person returning multiple times.

Only 630 visitors identified themselves as receiving SNAP benefits, she said, citing data kept by the organization.

Since at least 2020, Nassau County has had roughly 20,000 people apply for SNAP benefits yearly. More than 50% of cases in each of those years were denied, according to data from the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

During that same time, Suffolk County had more than 30,000 people apply each year, with denials that ranged from 34% to 38%, the data showed.

A Nassau County spokesman declined to give the most common reasons for denial of claims.

Suffolk County did not respond. 

Haylee Hebenstreit, a clinical instructor at Stony Brook University’s School of Social Welfare, said even the process of applying for SNAP benefits is often difficult and intrusive.

Applying for the benefits in New York often amounts to a “black box,” where people often don’t understand why they are approved or denied.

“The guidelines, the eligibility, it’s not meant to be understandable to the average person,” Hebenstreit said, noting later: “That should tell you something about what’s going on.”

At the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, staff are working to fill that black box with information.

Staff there help about 11,500 people each year on Long Island apply for SNAP benefits, including outreach, education and pre-screening, and assisting with some applications.

Case workers intently ask about their household size, income and immigration status to help determine if they are likely to get the benefits.

Maybe the parents are ineligible because of their immigration status, but not the child born in the United States. Or perhaps the family will have someone who is disabled in the house, which might allow the household to get benefits.

Sometimes, staff say, people don’t know that they’re eligible. But they acknowledge there are those in need who get denied.

Baird-Streeter, of the Health and Welfare Council, said those people often are given food cards, but she notes, “That’s not going to be on a consistent basis or in perpetuity.”

Advocates say further regionalizing the federal income thresholds might enable more of those in need in places like Long Island to be eligible for food benefits. Currently, they say the income thresholds are too low to make big enough dents in food insecurity on Long Island. They want more reflective regional income guidelines based on the cost of living in each area.

“This way, more Americans in need can actually access the benefits and supports that they need to help them, you know, meet the need and go about living their everyday lives,” said Haynes, vice president of government relations, advocacy and social policy at Long Island Cares.

Making do without SNAP

To make do, Ivory plans meals around the meats that are in the MLK Center pantry that week. She cooks large portions of rice, leaving leftovers to last for days.

After volunteering at the center, she took the second job there when the assistant opportunity came up.

In total from the two jobs, she earns about $45,000 before taxes. And even with that income, there are still moments when paying for food is out of reach.

Her daughter does not receive a free or reduced school breakfast and lunch, which can cost up to $30 weekly. Sometimes her meal tab is in the negative.

“It’s embarrassing for her to have to go to school every day and be told, ‘You’re in the negative; you have a negative balance,’ ” Ivory said.

Children who live in households that can get SNAP are among those eligible for free and reduced lunches, the state said. 

And she continued applying again for SNAP benefits. A co-worker, she said, told her she would have more chances of being accepted the more she applied.

Applications for SNAP can be made online, but Ivory said she also has gone to a Department of Social Services office because it is easier to hand in forms that way. But consistently applying, especially while working two jobs, takes an emotional and physical toll.

“It’s a lot to go into social services because it’s like an ego thing. It’s like, I can’t provide for myself. I already feel less than just going into the building,” Ivory said. “Then to be told, ‘Yeah, I can’t help you.’ ”

“It’s discouraging,” she added.

The system, she said, is set up to discourage people from advancing their lives because the more money you make, the less chance you have of getting SNAP benefits.

“It allows them to be dependent on it, but it doesn’t allow you to get out of it,” said Ivory, who is looking into medical programs and going back to school.

On her day off — Fridays — Ivory is back at the MLK Center’s food pantry. This time, she said, to volunteer. She is both the observer and the affected party to food insecurity.

There, she sees people pick out items such as rice, beans and meats.

Perhaps they are making the same juggle she does — working multiple jobs, volunteering, and wanting more. Maybe they earn SNAP assistance, but not enough to cover their expenses.

Without knowing them, she understands. 

“Even if I don’t know them on a first-name basis, I know the struggle,” she said.


  • Many Long Islanders earn salaries that could be sustainable in some other parts of the country, but have difficulty putting food on the table in a region with a high cost of living. 
  • Some earn too much to be eligible for food assistance through the SNAP program but still face food insecurity. 
  • In Suffolk County, 40% of the approximately 80,000 food-insecure residents earn above the gross income SNAP threshold in New York, according to Feeding America, a food bank network that operates across the country. 

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