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There is Always Room at The INN



— February 6, 2020

There is Always Room at The INN

By Jodi Helmer
  • Long Island’s first soup kitchen has expanded its services, but providing hot meals remains at the heart of its mission.

When NaturesPlus managers helped prepare and serve meals to those in need at the Mary Brennan Interfaith Nutrition Network (INN) on Long Island, they were providing much more than a hot meal. 

“We give our guests a healthy, hot meal that was prepared with love and a warm, safe place where our guests can sit around the table and be treated with dignity and respect,” says Dana Lopez, an INN spokeswoman.

“The staff and volunteers smile at each person who walks through the door and, for some of our guests, it might be the only time someone looks them in the eye and smiles.”

Hidden Demand

When the nonprofit started serving meals at a church in Hempstead in 1983, it was the first soup kitchen on Long Island.

The demand for services was overwhelming and the INN, which serves up to 1,300 meals per week, grew into the largest soup kitchen in Nassau and Suffolk counties. It’s part of an interfaith network of soup kitchens, with locations in Long Beach, Freeport and Central Islip, that share the mission of feeding hungry residents. 

The INN serves a five-course meal that includes bread, soup, protein, starches, desserts and hot beverages between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. The need is often surprising to those who live in the community, according to Lopez. 

“This is an affluent area so there is often no awareness that some of our residents might not have jobs or a place to live or might not be able to stretch their dollar for groceries,” Lopez says. “For some of our guests, this is the only meal they get in a day.”

Whether guests are low on funds for groceries and need one hot meal to sustain them until their next check or experience chronic hunger and depend on the INN for regular meals, all are welcome. There are no questions or judgment, just nourishing food and lots of respect, Lopez notes.

A large contingent of NaturesPlus staff served a hot meal at the INN, Long Island’s largest soup kitchen. They assisted the nonprofit in other ways as well, including helping guests pick out free clothing.


Spirit of Community

Twenty NaturesPlus staff volunteered at the INN last fall, and all were visibly moved by the experience.

“Our visit was a truly memorable, emotional and life-changing experience,” says NaturesPlus President Jim Gibbons, who served chicken and potatoes to INN guests standing with trays on a long line. “Thank you to everyone in the NaturesPlus family who came together to positively impact the lives of those less fortunate.”

Like Gibbons, others were affected by the people the INN serves as well as by the teamwork of the visiting NaturesPlus delegation.

“Unity is strength—when there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved,” says Shari Allen, executive vice president of sales and marketing. She cited a quote by Mother Teresa: “It’s not about how much you do, but how much love you put into what you do that counts.”

“It was a lot of hard work and I left feeling very fulfilled and thankful,” says Patrick Brady, NaturesPlus director of scientific affairs. “I was definitely impressed with how the team worked together to accomplish so much in such a short period.”

NaturesPlus Creative Director Betsy Sgroi says she woke the next morning with images of the faces of those served etched in her memory. “The experience was thought-provoking,” she remembers. “We did a great thing.”

Before their visit, the NaturesPlus volunteers viewed a video on bringing awareness to the issue of hunger on Long Island and highlighting work the INN was doing to serve the community.

Although the INN started as a soup kitchen and that remains an important part of their mission, the group does provide additional resources.

The center operates a boutique where guests can get free clothing and personal care items. Anthony Napolitano, director of sales administration, was among the NaturesPlus volunteers who sorted donations and helped guests pick out clothing.

Napolitano noted that there was a need for men’s clothing, which sparked the idea to host a clothing donation drive. NaturesPlus has collected 30 bags of clothing for the INN.

“The men [at NaturesPlus] really rose to the challenge and donated a lot of clothing,” Napolitano says. “The INN was so appreciative. I helped one guest who was so excited to pick out clothing; he told me that he was grateful for the big selection.” 

Another INN project is the Center for Transformative Change. Opened in 2016, it provides computer training and internet access to assist guests in securing jobs and housing; assistance applying for social services benefits; flu shots; English classes; and immigration and legal services.

Napolitano was surprised to learn that the nonprofit also provides secured mailing addresses and helps guests obtain identification paperwork, such as birth certificates and Social Security numbers.

“These are things that we take for granted, things that they need to apply for jobs or access benefits,” he says. “What the INN is doing to help guests get back on their feet is amazing; we knew we wanted to be involved.”

The INN also operates two emergency shelters in Nassau County—one for men and one for families—where social workers are on hand to assist guests with crisis intervention and prevention, and can help guests develop support systems and overcome barriers that led to homelessness.

Support Needed

Providing extensive services to the local community requires a lot of support.

The INN depends on grants and donations to fund its mission and volunteers to help serve guests. In addition to individual volunteers, companies like NaturesPlus sponsor meals and pitch in to help with meal preparation and service. 

“We see a lot of companies taking time to give back to the communities they serve,” Lopez says. “It means so much to us, especially when people take time out of their workday to give back.”

Napolitano believes that the volunteers benefit as much as the communities they serve. 

“It was devastating to see families in situations where they didn’t have enough food to eat and it inspired us to want to be more involved and continue our partnership with the INN into the future,” he says. “It’s so important to step back, look at the bigger picture and think about what we can do to make a difference.”

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