By Dan Guarino
With red, white and blue balloons flying as a squad of volunteers unloaded and shelved last-minute boxes of food, Rockaway’s newest food pantry hurried towards its official opening this past Tuesday, May 30.
Hosted by the non-profit Veteran In Command group, located at 116-16 Rockaway Beach Blvd., the food pantry will be open every Tuesday from 2:30 to 5 p.m. and is open to all. Community members are asked to bring ID and shopping bags and/or a cart, though no one was turned away.
In fact, the new community addition already had people lining up well before its posted start time of 2:30 p.m. Some walked or had gotten rides or assistance getting there. Others brought shopping bags or rolling carts and waited patiently. All were greeted by a mixture of local peninsula helpers and some from elsewhere who went out of their way to assist them.
Together they distributed fresh produce such as onions, potatoes, squash and sweet potatoes, cereals, canned soups and beans, cooking oil, frozen fish, cheese, canned salmon, rice and other food from shelves and refrigerated units as people filed through the location’s converted garage space. There were also hot Jamaican beef patties, and canvas bags with other food items, plants to grow and small household items distributed.
As stated in a flyer distributed at the event, “Veteran In Command has identified an underserved need relative to food insecurity and this pantry will fulfill that need.” Added its Executive Director Sal Lopizzo, “This is a part of Rockaway that has been underserved. This is a part that falls between the cracks.”
The Veteran In Command site is one of five food pantries opened up under the umbrella of the Veteran Advisory Committee of Southeast Queens. It joins those hosted by other veterans’ groups now serving Rosedale, Springfield Gardens, Hollis and Jamaica. After the Committee recognized Rockaway as a prime objective in their mission to feed those in need, they approached Lopizzo to enlist his help. He readily agreed.
According to Lopizzo, after initial discussions, it took about two weeks to outfit his space with industrial metal shelving and refrigeration and otherwise make it ready. The pantry itself operates in partnership with and/or sponsorship from Vets Inc., the NYC Human Resources Administration (HRA) and the national Combined Federal Campaign (CFC).
Major Sharon Sweeting Lindsey, U.S. Army Reserve (ret), a prime mover in establishing the new site, was also on hand to help launch it. A 26-year veteran, she is the Executive Director and founder of Vets Inc., which is dedicated to helping “feed families and veterans in need.” She also chairs the Veteran Advisory Committee of Southeast Queens, founded in 2018 by NY State Senator Leroy Comrie.
During a prayer at the brief opening ceremony, she said, “Thank you, God, for this moment that we can open a food pantry here.” And she noted “now we need the community and its support to make it a success.”
After delivering a van packed with food, and while directing activities and answering queries, Lindsey, whom everyone addressed respectfully as “Major,” noted that the opening was indeed a success. “The word is going to spread,” she said.
She also noted the food pantries in the group operate on different days and each helps from 250 to 425 needy individuals and families every week.
Currently they are working with HRA and CFC. “CFC put out a grant to establish pantries in underserved areas. This (the new Veteran In Command operation) is the result. They paid for the shelving, the fridges and so on.”
“The only downside,” she said, “is that this grant runs up to June 30. But we will be applying for a permanent grant to keep this going.”
Veteran In Command was founded in 2012, and opened its Rockaway facility, a large stately house at the corner of Beach 117th Street and Rockaway Beach Blvd., in 2019. They currently house six veterans, offer job training, counseling, PTSD referrals, community gardening, art classes and craft initiatives, a veteran led domestic violence program and frequently host community events.
Regarding the new food pantry, Lopizzo commented, “My goal is in our community for people to understand we have the ability to help each other, and not slam doors on each other. That it’s much easier to see the similarities (in us) than the differences.”
Throughout the day it appeared that each portion of nutritious food, along with the smiles and helping hands that greeted each man, woman and child, helped to further that goal.
Photos by Dan Guarino