Farms and Food Pantries – Collaborating to Fight Food Insecurity
Seven years ago, a forum on food insecurity organized by Mohonk Consultations at the Mohonk Mountain House brought together the executive directors of Family of Woodstock and the Rondout Valley Growers Association (RVGA). That meeting, between an organization that works with the food insecure and an organization that works with farmers, marked the beginning of a partnership that today is making a difference in the Hudson Valley. This year, with the opening of a series of food distribution centers across the Hudson Valley, connections between farmers and the food insecure are being streamlined in an innovative way.
More than 20,000 people in Ulster County are food insecure, including one in five children. Many of these families receive support via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps), but according to a 2010 study by the SUNY New Paltz Benjamin Center for Research, Regional Education, and Outreach (CRREO), the cost of food in Ulster County is almost double the average SNAP benefit. The result is thousands of people depending on donated food distributed through food banks and food pantries to meet their most basic needs.
At the same time, as many of our neighbors go hungry, much of our agricultural production is never consumed. Nationally, forty percent of the US food supply goes uneaten each year. This is the equivalent of $162 billion, 25 percent of the US water supply, and 33 million cars’ worth of greenhouse gasses. Waste occurs at every step in the food chain, from farmers left with excess harvest because of minor cosmetic damages or a lack of demand, to retailers throwing out unsold produce, and consumers who buy more than they can eat. The situation has become so extreme that in 2015, the Obama administration announced a major new initiative to address food waste, noting that “an average family of four leaves two million calories uneaten each year.”
An important first step towards addressing these problems in Ulster County came out of that meeting in 2009. Remembering that day, Family of Woodstock’s Executive Director Michael Berg said recently, “I was invited to speak, and the Rondout Valley Growers Association were also invited. We got there a little early and were hanging out together and they said, ‘You know, we’d give you food if we could; we just have no way to distribute it.’ That started a collaboration that’s now seven years old.”
With the help of volunteers from Ulster Corps and the generosity of farmers who either donated produce or opened their fields to gleaning, over 10,000 pounds of produce reached local food pantries that first year. “Farmers had been doing this informally for years,” Deborah DeWan, Executive Director of the RVGA said recently. “That meeting with Family gave us the chance to organize it, and today it is one of four core programs to which our Board is strongly committed. Family and RVGA were perfect collaborators from the outset and have enjoyed a wonderful partnership over these years. The growing results reflect our shared goal of serving the greater community.”
Despite early successes, soon after the program was launched it became clear that the system was still far from perfect. When produce arrived from farms, it was often in the form of large deliveries that contained more than the individual food pantries could handle. Not wanting to throw out fresh produce, the pantries would push their clients to take more than they could use – and the clients would then throw it out. “What we found working with the major food pantries,” Berg explained, “was that they have no capacity for storage. They have a freezer or a fridge, but they don’t have anything substantial.” What’s more, the food pantries are often so short on space that they don’t have room to expand their storage and cooling facilities on site.
Berg and his team at Family worked with partner organizations to develop a solution. “We made a plan to develop a series of ‘food hubs’ around the county that would have at least a walk-in cooler and, to the greatest extent possible, access to freezing capacity, kitchen space, and dry-good storage.” Not only would this allow them to process and store produce over longer periods, but it would make the entire distribution process easier for the food pantries and farmers.
Beth McLendon, Executive Director of Ulster Corps, organizes the volunteers who glean, process, and distribute produce from local farms. “Each pantry has really limited hours,” she explained. “They’ll be open Mondays and Thursdays for three hours, for example. So when we’re delivering from the farms we have all this produce in the car on Tuesday [because that is when the farmer was able to donate], but we can’t take it to that pantry. So the idea of the new system is that rather than going to all these different places, and having to find the specific hours that they’re open, we can take the produce to these five hubs, get it there immediately, and then the pantries can take what they want, so it gets to people as fresh as possible.”
LEP’s multi-year grant to Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley played a key role in making the collaboration possible. Family of Woodstock was one of more than a dozen organizations to receive funding through the Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley’s Farm Fresh Food Grant Program. In 2015, the first of five food hubs opened in the former Rosendale Elementary School. The school cafeteria has been converted to provide storage and processing space for local food pantries. The second hub opened in May in Kingston in the basement of People’s Place, already well known in the city for its Food Bank Farm Stand that takes place every Tuesday morning in the summer.
“People’s Place is actually located in a former supermarket,” Berg explained, “so when we went down into the basement, which they don’t use, we saw that there was a very substantial room that was insulated for freezing and a second slightly smaller one that was insulated for cooling. All the equipment had been removed so we set out to restore all of that, and we have put in a cooler and a freezer and restored the lift so they can use the basement.”
Each hub serves three or four local food pantries or feeding programs – Rosendale serves the Rondout Valley, while People’s Place will serve Kingston. In 2016, Family and its partners will open food hubs in Boiceville, Ellenville, and Clintondale to give the program reach through the entire county.
“The distribution has allowed us to provide healthy food year round,” McLendon said. “We try to give out all the frozen vegetables in the winter so that in the summer we can switch to fresh produce again and do more processing events. I stopped at one of the pantries with the frozen broccoli and somebody said ‘What farm is this from?’ I said, ‘It’s from Davenport Farms! We were there with our volunteers picking this broccoli, and we had a different team of volunteers processing it!’.”
In 2015, Family and the RVGA oversaw the distribution of over 63,000 pounds of produce from local farms to 28 Ulster County food pantries. As Michael Berg sees it, the program is about much more than food, it is about investing in our community’s future: “If we can help families, and improve the quality of food they’re serving, that’s the best thing we can do for them. Nutrition is key to children being able to do well in school, to being physically capable, to fighting off illness, and much more. We’ve been doing this for a long time but now with this funding we’ve become much more effective.”
DeWan added, “For the farmers who work hard on the land throughout the growing season, it’s been a gratifying way of giving back to the community – it leverages their generosity with the contributions of scores of volunteers to feed people in need.”