“We didn’t want to be those people who came to Hempstead, dropped off groceries, then left and patted ourselves on the back,” said Jon Stepanian, the CEO and co-founder of Community Solidarity. “We don’t want to be a charity-based organization that just helps people – we also want to empower communities to help themselves.”
Community Solidarity is “America’s largest vegetarian hunger relief organization,” according to their website. They have five locations – four on Long Island in Hempstead, Huntington, Farmingdale and Wyandanch and one in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Once a week, each location holds a “food share,” which is essentially a free outdoor grocery store.
Along with vegetarian groceries, the food shares also distribute free clothing, books, toys and toiletries. All of the items they distribute are donated to them, with much of the food coming from grocery stores with surpluses that would otherwise be discarded. Volunteers also cook vegan hot meals as well and distribute them at the food shares.
Many Hofstra students can be found at the Hempstead food share that takes place every Sunday at 2 p.m.
“We’ve volunteered at places before where there isn’t much for us to do and all of the volunteers are standing around waiting instead of helping out,” said Caroline Peers, junior neuroscience major and president of Circle K, the collegiate level of the service organization Kiwanis International. “Community Solidarity’s [Hempstead] food share is not one of those events. It’s incredibly hands-on and it gives members a chance to make a direct impact on the local community.”
Peers is currently a member of Alpha Phi Omega (APO), a co-ed community service fraternity through which she has volunteered multiple times at the Hempstead food share. As president of Circle K, she hopes to plan a volunteer opportunity for the members of Circle K with Community Solidarity within the semester.
According to Stepanian, Community Solidarity first started back in 2006, with just him and a couple of his friends handing out groceries at the Hempstead train station.
“We had all just graduated college,” Stepanian said. “We had a ton of free time and the job market was really terrible, so no one was getting employed. We knew there was a lot of food being tossed out at supermarkets across the Island and wanted to do something productive with our time, so we figured we’d rescue food and bring it out to Hempstead train station.”
Ever since then, Community Solidarity has been doing this at the Hempstead train station every Sunday. After its formation, it soon joined a larger, international network of vegetarian food shares called Food Not Bombs.
However, in 2011, the organization broke away from the Food Not Bombs movement and started calling itself Community Solidarity.
“We love Food Not Bombs – it’s a global organization that does so much good, but a lot of [their] chapters focus mainly on hot food and only a little bit of groceries,” Stepanian said.
“If you go to the food share, there’s so many people who feel like they’ve been left behind ... They feel like no one cares about them or that they’re wasted in our society,” he said. “We want to put every [person], every piece of food and every piece of clothing to use. We don’t want anyone feeling out of place; we want to include everybody, so that’s why we call it Community Solidarity.”
Jenna Ayers, a junior public relations major, has volunteered once at the Hempstead food share through APO as well. She admitted it was somewhat daunting volunteering for the first time in such a fast-moving setting.
“Everyone who volunteers there is so welcoming and open – they’ll provide you with as much instruction and guidance as you need,” Ayers said. “It can be very overwhelming at times ... it’s an extremely fast-paced environment, so it’s never going to be perfectly organized. But it’s surprising how on top of things all of the volunteers are, it made it easier for all of us first-timers.”
Ayers said that out of all the community service she has done with APO, she feels that her participation in Community Solidarity made the “biggest impact.”
“What drew me to Community Solidarity was that ... you’re able to get off campus and actually interact with the people you’re helping,” she said. “It’s unique in the way that you’re able to see firsthand how everyone’s actions help dozens of individuals in our surrounding communities.”
“We really pride ourselves on treating everyone equally, [so] we’re kind of not a hierarchal organization,” Stepanian said. “While a non-profit has to have leadership, we try to make all our decision-making processes focused on the community – that happens at the grassroots level.”