Long Island cost of living: More families struggle to put food on the table, while many don’t qualify for food stamps 

Long Island cost of living: More families struggle to put food on the table, while many don’t qualify for food stamps

For Khatisier “Kay” Mardice, getting the best food value for her family means making calculations about which store to patronize for items on her shopping list.

She does a majority of her shopping at BJ’s Wholesale Club in Riverhead “because it just works out cheaper to buy in bulk when you have children,” said Mardice, 42, a divorced mother of three school-age children who lives in Calverton. And because of her BJ’s membership, she also saves at the store’s gas station — about 10 cents per gallon. “So,” she said, “it’s like a double-whammy” of savings.

Mardice is like many Long Islanders: Having enough cash for food has become a growing problem, including for plenty of working people, according to local government and nonprofit officials. Food pantries report more people seeking emergency food aid. Some officials pointed to what they viewed as the inadequacy of government policies to help people in need.

During a grocery shopping trip on March 8, the day she received her food stamp allotment, Mardice spent $288.25 at BJ’s. She saved $76 through store discounts and coupons.


Through scores of interviews with experts and Long Island families, Newsday’s “Feeling the Squeeze” series gives insight into why the region is so expensive and explains the financial toll that comes with living here. From struggles to afford child care, to the burdens of high housing costs and more, these stories impact Long Islanders of all backgrounds and walks of life.

“That’s how I shop every month there,” she said. “That’s how I stretch my food stamps.”

Mardice said she receives $825 a month in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, the federally funded program commonly called food stamps. She also gets Section 8 housing assistance.

“I don’t really have any extra leeway, as far as buying food, because I don’t have the income outside of child support, which I have to pay my other bills,” said Mardice, who last worked in 2020 — at a nonprofit preschool program that paid $15 an hour. That, she added, didn’t cover child-care costs and other expenses. Her food stamp benefit back then was much smaller, less than $100 a month, she said.

Food prices above historical average rates

And then came the COVID-19 pandemic, ushering in a lockdown of the preschool and her job as a family advocate, which entailed going into homes. “So, the food stamps really buy the bulk of my food for the month …,” Mardice said. “It gets very expensive when you have to spend cash, especially when you don’t have the cash.”

report last year by the Suffolk County Legislature’s Welfare to Work Commission determined that the true definition of poverty on Long Island, based on the costs of housing, food, transportation and basic necessities, should be $55,000 for a family of four. However, the official federal poverty level, which determines who is eligible for government benefits, including food stamps, is just $30,000 in 2023 for a family of four — up from $27,750 in 2022.

The official poverty level does not consider regional cost differences, which hurts a high-cost region like Long Island. The federal poverty level, established in the mid-1960s, is only updated for inflation.

“There needs to be regulatory changes,” Nassau Social Services Commissioner Nancy Nunziata said. “They’ve increased the poverty level a little bit, but it’s still way too low. There’re still too many people who would not qualify for help based on those numbers. I think we have to realistically look at what it costs for food.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s May “Food Price Outlook 2023” summary said: “Food prices are expected to grow more slowly in 2023 than in 2022 but still at above historical-average rates. In 2023, all food prices are predicted to increase 6.2 percent.”

For Mardice, being prepared for any emergency drives her to keep her pantry stocked. She has cabinets for cereals, packages of rice and pasta that are labeled. She even keeps what she calls “bug-out bags” for her children behind a couch in her townhouse, filled with items including cereal, oatmeal, granola bars and tuna — and even a change of clothing and a flashlight.

She does it in case “something catastrophic happens … Say a tree falls on my house,” Mardice said, noting she lives in a wooded area with only one way in and out. “We had a huge fire here a couple of years ago. I said, ‘Guys, we might have to get out of here.’ So in a situation like that, we grab our bags and go.”

The food stamps really buy the bulk of my food for the month … It gets very expensive when you have to spend cash, especially when you don’t have the cash.

— Khatisier “Kay” Mardice, 42, of Calverton

Credit: Rick Kopstein

Therefore, food shopping is critical. After BJ’s, Mardice’s next stops are at Walmart and Aldi. She gets a “bigger bang for my buck” at Walmart for certain foods and snacks for her children. Her bill there: $98.45. And “Aldi is the best store when you’re someone struggling financially for food,” Mardice said. “You can get meats for a fraction” of what it costs at other stores. The bill: $47.55.

As a last resort, if she’s running low on food and food stamps, she’ll go to Long Island Cares’ Hampton Bays food pantry, which she said “has really good quality food.”

“I don’t really like to go unless I really need it because I think I’m taking from people that truly need it” who may not have food stamps, she said.

Increased need for Long Island emergency food aid

Paul Gilday, a 65-year-old widower who is disabled from his days as a commercial and residential mover, sought out an Island Harvest food pantry for the first time last year, at the suggestion of a local church and family members.

He usually goes twice a week. Gilday and his son, John, 28, who has Down syndrome, live on disability benefits, and Gilday’s son receives $174 a month in food stamps, not enough to meet their nutritional needs. So, food pantries are essential in his time of financial crisis.

He has put his Massapequa Park home up for sale and is looking for a cheaper place to live, perhaps upstate. “I cannot let me go into the streets — me and my son. I just cannot allow it,” Gilday said.

I cannot let me go into the streets – me and my son. I just cannot allow it.

—Paul Gilday, 65, of Massapequa Park

Credit: Rick Kopstein

He’s been adrift since his wife, Elly Rose Gilday, died in 2020.

“My wife used to handle everything, all the bills — everything,” said Gilday, a U.S. Army veteran. “Just before she passed away, she was starting to show me how to do things … And even then I was like, ‘It makes no sense to me’ … I just made a lot of mistakes … I had a lot of people try to help me, family members. It just got to be overwhelming.”

The Island’s two large food banks — Island Harvest Food Bank and Long Island Cares – The Harry Chapin Regional Food Bank — report an increase in demand for emergency food assistance. In addition to operating their own pantries, they each distribute food to about 300 member agencies with pantries.

“Food insecurity is the result of something else,” said Randi Shubin Dresner, president and chief executive of Island Harvest. “We really think areas we all collectively need to work on [are] income inequality and financial security.” That has led her organization to start its Workforce Skills Development Institute, a job training program to help people earn better wages.

Paule T. Pachter, president and chief executive of Long Island Cares, said there was a 59.3% increase in the number of people coming to the food bank’s six satellite locations across the Island the first three months of this year compared to the same period last year.

These are crisis numbers … The economy on Long Island, when it comes to housing, is not sustainable for people who are struggling.

—Paule T. Pachter, president and CEO of Long Island Cares

Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

“These are crisis numbers,” Pachter said. “I think we have to look at the cost of living on Long Island …The economy on Long Island, when it comes to housing, is not sustainable for people who are struggling.”

Pachter also noted the impact of the federal government ending, on March 1, extra food stamp allotments that recipients had received during the pandemic.

“Everyone was getting the maximum benefit” during the pandemic, Suffolk County Department of Social Services Commissioner Frances Pierre said of SNAP, which for a household of four was $939 monthly, officials said.

Pierre said the department has seen a “large increase” in the number of applications for SNAP benefits — growing from “the norm” of around 2,000 per month to about 3,100 per month this year. She suspects “higher-than-ever” food prices is one reason.

Cathy Demerato, executive director of the Center for Advocacy, Support and Transformation in Southold, said during the pandemic that her agency “saw a lot of people who never needed help before.” Her agency provides food relief and other aid to low-income residents of the North Fork and Shelter Island.

“Now we’re seeing people who are really struggling because of the high cost of food, housing and utilities,” she said.

Newsday wants to hear from Long Islanders about how they face the region’s cost of living. Tell us your story here.