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Jun 3, 2009 1:03 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Sag Harbor food pantry is always well-stocked thanks to director

Jun 3, 2009 1:03 PM

On a recent Tuesday morning, Lillian Woudsma strolled through the basement kitchen of the Old Whaler’s Church in Sag Harbor inspecting mountains of fresh fruits and vegetables stacked on a table, and peeking inside rows of coolers stuffed with fillets of fish, cartons of milk and whole chickens.

As she moved through the room, into a pantry that would make many restaurants envious, and around the tables stacked with bags of groceries, she offered gentle directions and friendly accolades to the nearly two dozen workers who buzzed around arranging the food, like any good business owner would.

But Ms. Woudsma’s business on this day was not preparing for a stream of paying customers, and her workers were not paid employees.

Ms. Woudsma, 69, ran a seafood market for years in a small building on Bay Street. Her husband, John, is a builder. She sold the business several years ago—it’s now Billy Joel’s private residence—but her work ethic was soon put to good use, on a daily basis, as the director of the Sag Harbor Food Pantry.

Under four years of Ms. Woudsma’s direction, the pantry, which feeds dozens of needy families each week, has burgeoned from a small operation that provided limited essentials to its congregants to a veritable marketplace that doles out fresh produce and meats, baked goods, basic staples, a staggering variety of groceries, and even junk food.

“We don’t buy that, it’s donated,” she said, passing two cartons filled with bags of potato chips, candy bars, donuts and soft drinks. “But the people love it.”

The people are the 40 to 50 Sag Harbor families and individuals who come to the Old Whaler’s Church each Tuesday morning in search of help putting food on their dinner tables in tight financial times. From struggling musicians to single mothers, unemployed tradespeople to retirees, the food pantry seems to touch just about every corner of the small Sag Harbor community and has become the envy of such services on the East End, thanks to Ms. Woudsma’s industriousness and the donations from the local businesses she has recruited.

“Before Lillian, it was just a little pantry. We used to give out a little canned stuff each week, no fresh fruit or any of this,” said Evelyn Ramunno, who has volunteered at the pantry for eight years. “It’s phenomenal now. She envisioned all of this. These people are so fortunate to have all this good stuff.”

Indeed, the selection of products on the tables at the market is robust. Stacks of fresh oranges, potatoes, heads of broccoli and cauliflower. Bags of baked rolls and breads. Whole chickens and organic turkey breasts. Fillets of sole.

“They’re frozen, but who cares?” Ms. Woudsma exclaims while pulling a package of the white fish out of one of several coolers. “They’re $1.25 a pound. I know a seafood wholesaler right here in Sag Harbor, Iceberg [Seafood Inc], he gives me a real good price.”

Finding those good prices and the donations, both big and small, to keep the pantry so well stocked is not difficult, she said. It just takes leg work—a lot of leg work.

“I never stop,” Ms. Woudsma said with quiet pride. “This morning at 8 a.m. I went to Hampton Market Place, to the Ross School, and Provisions. Schmidts, Cromers, Golden Pear, yesterday. I run all over every day.”

Ms. Woudsma clearly runs the food pantry much in the same way that she ran her seafood business. The bountiful supplies of the small pantry come from at least a dozen donors throughout Long Island, some dragged into service, some willing to help anyone who would do the work and seek out their assistance. The pantry spends another $800 a week—largely privately raised, though some of it comes from grants that Ms. Woudsma has applied for from charitable groups—on goods with prices that are no doubt haggled down to bargain basement rates.

The economy has meant struggling financial times, but the pantry, thus far, has still managed to gather the funding that it needs to keep operating. In addition to offering food, the pantry donates $500 each quarter to the financially strapped church, it often pays heating bills, up to $500, for families in need each winter, and even slips a few dollars into the pockets of some down-and-out mothers.

Ms. Woudsma is clearly proud of the operation that she has helped put together and is unsympathetic toward other food pantries that aren’t as well stocked.

“I’m sorry that the other food pantries don’t do what we do,” she said with a shrug. “There’s no reason that they can’t do it. We’re a very rich area. They just don’t do it.

“I can’t help it,” she continued. “I take care of mine. If anybody wants help, I can help them. It’s not brain surgery, believe me. You just gotta get off your duff and cook.”

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What an amazing woman! I see the people of Sag harbor are in good hands!
By squeaky (291), hampton bays on May 10, 09 7:45 AM
I am saying "Thank-You" to Ms.Woudsma. Unfortunately I have to disagree with her last comments in this article. Since I can remember back as a child living in the area...residents have always taken care of one another. There is plenty of community outreach here...The problem now is how do we take care of day-labor illegal help that is brought out here by GREED? We never know the amount ...it could be a few hundered...or bused out thousands!!
By UNITED states CITIZEN (207), SOUTHAMPTON on May 10, 09 7:46 AM