hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News May 2015


Food in the pantry

Local groups get creative in fight against hunger


Contributing writer



Caryn Tindal has become a regular visitor in recent months to the Comfort Food Community pantry in Greenwich, N.Y. She said her husband was laid off from a job he held for 21 years, and his new job pays 50 percent less. The food pantry, she said, helps the couple to get by.

Caryn Tindal says she never imagined she would have to resort to a food pantry to feed her family.

But for the past five months, she has gone every Wednesday to the Comfort Food Community pantry in Greenwich.

Her husband was among 160 employees laid off by Glens Falls Hospital near the end of 2013. He’d worked there for 21 years. He found a new job, but it paid 50 percent less, and Tindal has a disability that prevents her from working.
“We couldn’t get any assistance,” Tindal said.

The couple, who are in their late 50s, exhausted their retirement savings, and keeping food on the table soon became a challenge.

“Say it’s midweek and you don’t get your paycheck till Friday,” she explained, her voice trailing off.

Like Tindal and her husband, the working poor seem well represented among the growing population around the region that relies on emergency food programs. Advocates say that in the aftermath of the economic shocks of 2008-09, more people are working in jobs that pay too little or have too few hours to support them.

“People go for a full-time job but get part-time hours,” explained Sue Bassett, who has coordinated the Rutland Community Cupboard in Vermont for 11 years. “They’re sent home at 28 hours a week, because the employer would have to pay health benefits” if they logged more hours.

But there are lots of other reasons people wind up needing emergency food aid. Marriages break up, leaving single parents trying to juggle child care and household expenses on a single paycheck. Seasonal work in construction or farming dries up as the heating season begins. Medical bills or urgent house or car repairs wipe out savings.

And some people who can’t find work, or are unable to work, discover they don’t qualify for any government safety net – or that they can’t get by on the assistance offered.
Devin Bulger, director of programs for the Greenwich food pantry, said his organization is “plugging the hole in the dam.”

“The dynamic of income versus expenses leaves some families pretty pinched,” Bulger said. “It’s the simple math of a lot of people’s budgets.”

At Loaves and Fishes Food Ministry in Cambridge, the Rev. Jim Bartholomew said he also sees more and more people who are working but can’t make it without help.

“We have a lot of folks who work hard,” Bartholomew said. “If you make $10 an hour, what do you do at the end of the week to make ends meet?”

Like the Cambridge pantry, the one in Greenwich serves to supplement, on a weekly basis, what people are able to buy for themselves in the supermarket. Visitors to the Greenwich pantry choose items and fill their bags from what’s on the shelves, just as they would at a retail store. Besides the canned and packaged foods commonly collected in anti-hunger campaigns by banks and community organizations, both pantries offer as much fruit, vegetables and meat as they can.

But this relative abundance is unusual. In New York, many food pantries, facing demand that outpaces their supply, limit individuals and families to a three-day supply of food – nine meals per person – once a month. Meeting that minimum qualifies a food pantry for a subsidy through the state Health Department.

Some pantries give out pre-packed bags on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. As for the type of food people obtain, highly processed foods with a long shelf life remain the stock in trade for the average food pantry. Bread is also common, as stores are continuously discarding it.


Setting a higher goal
On a recent morning at the Greenwich pantry, Nick Christos, a gregarious veteran who lives on Social Security and what he described as “a small, little pension,” sat at a table in the spacious room, nursing a cup of coffee. Self-serve refreshments like coffee, juice and muffins are set up for guests and volunteers at the Greenwich and Cambridge pantries.

Christos, a recent arrival to Greenwich, said he gave up his apartment at a Saratoga Springs senior housing complex so that a frail neighbor wouldn’t have to leave the complex. He had a lot of compliments for his new community.

“This pantry is exceptional compared to any other ones I’ve been to,” he said.
“I was overwhelmed at how many things I could get -- the fresh vegetables, the meats. And the paper towels and toilet paper --- they don’t allow you to buy them with food stamps.”
Other food pantries he’s gone to in the past were open only once a month, Christos said.
“This is, unbelievably, every Wednesday,” he said.

Christos said he was also surprised that the Greenwich pantry didn’t require him to disclose his income.

Comfort Food Community doesn’t set any income criteria “because income doesn’t tell the whole story,” Bulger explained. It doesn’t account for the financial stresses of large medical bills or a divorce, for example.

The group that runs the pantry has an advisory committee, including several pantry “guests,” that sets guidelines for its policies and operations.

Christos said he was amazed to find that he can take a free ride service run by the group to the food pantry and supermarket.

“They deliver the food, too,” he said. “You can’t do that in Saratoga Springs.”

He attributes the comparative lack of services in Saratoga Springs to that city’s self-image of being affluent and free of poverty, crime and drugs. When he lived there, Christos said he was dismayed when the county economic opportunity organization moved out of the city to Ballston Spa, the county seat, taking its food pantry with it. The city’s remaining food pantries were less well provisioned.

“When I did have my car, I would take people to get sustenance,” Christos recalled.
Florence Fish, who comes to the Greenwich pantry every week with her grandson, said her only income is a Social Security check.

“You just barely get by,” she said. “This is a big help.”
She said she hasn’t looked into the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, and doesn’t know if she would qualify.


Beyond meeting a need
The Comfort Food Community got its start in November 2013 when a group of people in Greenwich set out to “contribute to the health of our community through the inspirational power of food,” according to the group’s mission statement. The word “comfort” in the group’s name implies a sense of confidence that one can feed one’s family and that nutritious, healthy foods are available.

Susan Sanderson, one of the group’s founders, said the problem of food insecurity can be understood by anyone who’s seen people converging on a supermarket to stock up before a major snowstorm.

“You can begin to understand why people have anxiety about not having enough to eat,” she said.

In addition to meeting emergency food needs, Comfort Food built and coordinates the Greenwich community garden. The group envisions strengthening food security in other ways, in part by helping people before they reach crisis situations. Looking to models like The Stop in Toronto, the local pantry’s organizers imagine a community food center that would offer food-related job training and income-generating activities.

Before Comfort Food, an ad hoc group called the Emergency Relief Committee came together in the 1980s to provide food, clothing and heat to people in need in the Greenwich area. For three decades, the volunteers operated out of the town hall and relied exclusively on community donations. The committee opened its small food pantry by appointment only, and it never developed the organizational capacity to join the regional food bank and obtain larger quantities of food.

Comfort Food approaches the problem of hunger from a different vantage point.
“Why not provide the most comprehensive services we can?” Bulger asked.

After several meetings with the people who had been running the earlier, low-key food pantry, Comfort Food Community took it over last March. The monthly, appointment-only format was immediately replaced by a pantry that’s open four hours every week.

By having regular hours for six months, the food pantry was able to join the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York. The new organizers also introduced local farmers to the pantry in anticipation of donations later in the growing season.

At first, people were wary of the changes and few showed up, despite colorful flyers in store windows and on bulletin boards around the area. But within a few months, the word had gotten out, and Comfort Food was serving up to 40 households a week. Bulger said this increase “really magnified the physical limitations” of the town hall. Canned goods and packaged goods, for example, were stored on the second floor in several small rooms up a steep staircase.
“We could only allow one person to shop at a time,” Bulger said.

So in September, Comfort Food moved the pantry to the nearby St. Joseph’s parish hall, where organizers now lay out the food in a fashion resembling a country store. People take a cart down a short aisle, selecting items of their choice. A ramp makes the hall accessible to wheelchairs, walkers and hand trucks, and everything is on one floor. The group pays the church a fee to offset utility costs.

The move allowed even more people to use the pantry, and by late winter the group was serving 80 to 90 households a week.

To gain access to the old Greenwich food pantry, people had to walk past the open office of the town clerk, and organizers say some people probably chose to pass up the opportunity for food rather than risk embarrassment. For many people still, accepting help is a source of shame.
“They don’t like that they’re not self-sufficient and able to provide for their kids,” Bulger said.

Building a broad base

Last year, the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York distributed more than 32 million pounds of food to about 1,000 agencies in 23 counties. Agencies pay the food bank a service fee of 16 cents a pound for donated foods. The food bank offers cooperatively purchased foods at a deep discount; commodity foods are free.

Comfort Food places its order with the food bank once a week. A donated electronic scanning system allows the food pantry to update its inventory as guests check out.

Every Tuesday, volunteers from Battenkill Community Services, an agency that works with developmentally disabled people, help to transport as much as a ton of food to Greenwich from the food bank in Latham. The organization takes six to 12 clients in one or two large vehicles, making it possible to load and unload very efficiently.

The Hannaford supermarket in Greenwich also serves as a significant source of food donated to the local pantry and others in the area. Bulger said Comfort Food might get 15 banana boxes, some weighing 40 pounds, in its weekly donations from the supermarket. The food must be fit for human consumption, though the condition varies. In the winter, with much less produce coming from local farms, this donation becomes very important.

Sanderson said the conventional wisdom used to be that people going to food pantries weren’t interested in produce. And when Comfort Food got its first donations of salad greens from a local farm, she said, this assumption seemed to be confirmed -- until a volunteer went out and bought some bottles of salad dressing. Then people started taking the greens.

Another common misconception is that those seeking emergency food are ignorant about food and cooking. When a farmer brought in a donation of eggs, including goose eggs, he explained how to use them, as he would to his customers. Just as Sanderson was briefing the volunteers, the first member walked in and surprised her by saying, “Oh, you have goose eggs like my grandmother used to have.”

“Out of every conversation we learn something,” Sanderson said.

The strength of local involvement has allowed Comfort Food to be generous with its services, she added.

“We’re really intent on building from the bottom up,” Sanderson said. “We had many meetings before we started up. That’s what gave us the base.”

Early on, the group decided to steer clear of politics and religion. At last count, Comfort Food had 71 active volunteers, and the group is very diverse.

Sanderson, formerly a development officer for a large environmental group, said organizers made it a point to seek broad community support, rather than looking to a handful of large donors.

For a monthlong fund raiser last year, Pat Donahue, the fire chief in the nearby hamlet of Cossayuna, came up with the slogan “Give Hunger the Boot.” Many local businesses let the group put a firefighter’s boot on the counter for customers’ spare change. The boot was odd enough to get people’s attention. A large “thermometer” made by the Girl Scouts was placed in a park on Route 29, the village’s main thoroughfare, to display progress toward the group’s fund-raising goal of $15,840, which it met.


Rutland: More food, fewer visits
In Vermont, a group of clergy joined forces to create the Rutland Community Cupboard nearly 20 years ago so people could obtain food without having to prove that they were poor or hungry. The Rutland pantry, which today is run by secular organization, is now open 16 hours a week. It served 2,100 families last year.

Bassett, the coordinator of the Rutland pantry, said the demand for the organization’s services has gone up “really dramatically” since 2006.

“There’s an imbalance in our country that has been accepted as the norm,” Bassett said. “Conglomerates make lots of money, but it’s not trickling down. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is just getting larger.”

Like other food pantries in the region, the Rutland Community Cupboard serves the whole spectrum of needs. There are people whose own cupboards are bare – some who don’t even have cupboards -- as well as low-income people who rely on the pantry as a supplement to what they can buy.

But the large increase in numbers of households using the food pantry is straining its small physical space, so the Rutland program has had to restrict visits to six times a year. To offset the limit on visits, the Community Cupboard has more than doubled what it’s able to give each time a person comes to the program, Bassett added. There are always some items that people can take without a limit.

Some families are very good at planning, Bassett said.
“They tell us they can stretch what they get for a month,” she said.
But that’s not possible for people living in motels, where a family of four or more may have access only to a microwave and a tiny refrigerator. Bassett said at least 50 people are being housed at motels in Rutland on any given day, an estimate she added is probably “extremely low.”

In her three-quarter-time job, Bassett coordinates 65 regular volunteers and has others that she can call on in a pinch. She orders food and lugs it around and even shovels the driveway.
Successful fund raising allows the pantry to buy more food from the Vermont Foodbank. Donors run the gamut from individuals and businesses to church groups and motorcycle clubs. Last year, Soup Bowls for Hunger raised $10,000, and the Three Tomatoes restaurant brought in $45,000 in three nights.


Cultivating sources of food
In 2014, the Vermont Foodbank served 153,000 people through its network of 225 agencies. Although the need is great, the food bank has been struggling with a 14 percent decline in donations compared with last year, spokeswoman Judy Stermer said.

Unlike most food banks, the one in Vermont doesn’t charge its member agencies a maintenance fee per pound of food. The agencies do pay 5 cents per pound to have donated food delivered if they can’t pick it up. (Commodity food is delivered free.) The Vermont Foodbank also passes along savings to members for foods obtained through its cooperative buying program.
Bassett said the food bank’s new distribution center in Rutland is giving the Community Cupboard more access, at no cost, to perishable foods, including produce and even frozen hams and bacon.

Working through multiple channels and with many partners, in the last 10 years the Community Cupboard has quadrupled the quantity of food it distributes.

Some supermarket chains have generous corporate giving policies. For example, the Aldi discount chain freezes fresh meats on the sell-by date and donates them to the food pantry weekly. Hannaford always donates products that are in good condition, but Bassett said she wants to become more assertive with other supermarkets that throw away good food.
She also is seeking new sources among local farms. Given the higher incidence of diabetes and heart disease among low-income people, Bassett said vegetables and other nutritious foods have become more of a priority.

From Bassett’s vantage point, human needs like a livable wage, affordable rent, and comprehensive medical care are “all the same issue.” She said she’s dismayed by the judgmental attitude some people have toward the poor.
“It’s often not too far under the surface,” she said.


Offering choices
When Colleen Pidgeon began volunteering 16 years ago at CoNCERNS-U, a food pantry in the city of Rensselaer, she saw how difficult it was for people to walk through the food pantry door. To make matters worse, she said, people couldn’t even select the foods they would receive.
Pidgeon, who went on to become the food pantry’s coordinator, has promoted the organization’s current supermarket-style, client-choice approach.

“Only a decade ago, the coordinator or a volunteer prepackaged the bag,” she said. “Now pantries are changing, and that makes me extremely happy.”

But the need for emergency food aid has increased dramatically since the economic collapse of 2008-09, she said.

“Food pantries were set up to provide food when there was a crisis,” Pidgeon said. “For the last seven years, it’s really been basic sustenance.”

CoNCERNS-U tries to be an active presence in the community, she said, working with area school districts whose social workers tend to know which families are having economic difficulties. The group also does advocacy, helping people to navigate the social-service system.
A lot of people are struggling to get by but don’t know where to start in finding resources, she noted.

But she doesn’t see the people who come to the food pantry as helpless victims or the sum of their problems.

“We see a lot of strengths in our clients,” Pidgeon said.


Making connections
At the Friendship Center, a food pantry in North Adams, Mass., no one is ever called a client.
“We use the word friend,” said Marc Roundout, a central figure in the all-volunteer organization.
The Friendship Center began four years ago when North Adams’ newly formed interfaith group was looking for a project. In the six hours it’s open every Wednesday, about 160 families come for food. Households can receive food every other week. Besides for the Salvation Army, it’s the only substantial source of emergency food in the city of 14,000.

A number of supermarkets and farms have become regular donors to the Friendship Center.
The center operates out of a site that’s too small to accommodate everyone at once, and having long lines of people outside isn’t conducive to good relations with neighbors. So organizers arranged to use the Baptist church down the street during food distribution hours.

When people arrive at the Friendship Center, they sign in, and someone hands them a printout with the week’s menu of available foods. After they place their order, volunteers pack and deliver it to the nearby church. When their number is called, they go there to pick it up.

While people are waiting for their food, they can meet with representatives from a rotating set of agencies, including childcare providers, a domestic violence center, and outreach workers for the WIC and SNAP programs. Between pantry sessions, a representative of a reintegration program is on hand to meet with ex-offenders seeking assistance.

Because North Adams is such a hilly town and people receive as much as 30 pounds of food at a time, Roundout said Friendship Center volunteers drive people home if they need a ride.


Growing to meet a need
When the Loaves and Fishes pantry in Cambridge, N.Y., opened its doors on a late winter afternoon, so many cars were piling into the lot that John Mills, a devoted volunteer, stood outside in the cold, directing people where to park. Soon senior citizens, families with young children and an assortment of adults of all ages filled most of the chairs in the 72-seat dining room of a former restaurant on Route 22. In the kitchen, a former Cambridge Hotel chef chopped a mound of red onions, fried breaded mozzarella, and prepared other ingredients for the free Friday community lunch the group hosts every week.

The previous week, Loaves and Fishes had moved its operations from the basement of a building the organization had rented from the local Presbyterian church. The food ministry was able to relocate to the former Red Roost restaurant thanks to an anonymous benefactor who bought the building, effectively donating a substantial down payment, and is holding the mortgage in the group’s name. Rent from an upstairs apartment makes monthly payments affordable.

Unlike the Comfort Food Community nine miles away, Loaves and Fishes has religious roots. Jim and Vicki Bartholomew, who started the Cambridge food pantry three years ago, have been in outreach ministry for 28 years. A much more limited pantry previously provided food on an emergency basis in Cambridge.

“Everyone has a motivation for a particular type of ministry,” Bartholomew said. “We have a heart for those that struggle.”

New to ministry in 1989, the couple helped establish The Open Door soup kitchen in Glens Falls. Later they started the Cornerstone Soup Kitchen in Hudson Falls, and today their son runs a food pantry in the town of Kingsbury.

Their new space has a large kitchen, two coolers and storage and distribution areas. By the end of the food pantry’s two-hour food distribution, 48 households had received food, leaving some of the shelves practically bare. A week after the move, the possibility of adding a third set of open hours was already under discussion.

Like Comfort Food Community, Loaves and Fishes depends heavily on the regional food bank and on food donations from Hannaford to supply local families in need. The group is also becoming more focused on nutrition and is trying to transition from canned foods to fresh fruits and vegetables.

“If it wasn’t for the food bank, we wouldn’t be operating,” Bartholomew said.

This winter, Loaves and Fishes added another way to help people – a Code Blue shelter. Betty Carey of Hoosick Falls took on the project after Bartholomew, who has the ability to motivate people to give deeply, left a message on her answering machine.

“He wanted a shelter where people could go when it was 20 degrees or lower,” she said. “I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew how I wanted it done.”

With a stack of index card for each of the dozens of volunteers she recruited, she pulled it off.
Sometimes no one stayed. On other nights there were two or three people, the shelter’s maximum. Drop-ins came for dinner and to get warm. The shelter was open every night from Jan. 1 to March 1. Every night, Carey sat down and ate with the volunteers to get to know them and make them feel appreciated.

As volunteers with Loaves and Fishes, Ron and Marilyn Gallett of White Creek use the group’s truck to make the weekly Hannaford run. They also come to the food pantry to get food. A year ago, when Ron Gallett, 67, was laid off from his last job, he said he lost half his income.
“I’d rather volunteer and feel I’m earning what I’m getting,” he said. “We need more places like this to help people stretch their money.”


Rallying a community
In Pittsfield, Mass., rather than operating its own food pantry, the group Community ReStart (it recently changed its name from Berkshire Co-Act), has been using a variety of strategies to boost the supply of food, and especially of produce, available to people with emergency needs.
Starting in 2009, the group developed eight gardens around the city to raise vegetables for food pantries and meal sites in the city. Two teaching gardens inspire new gardeners. Donated produce also comes from home gardeners who “grow an extra row” and from area farms. The program contributes 20,000 pounds of produce a year.

Besides its anti-hunger initiatives, the grassroots organization has created a day center for the homeless and unemployed, a day labor program that provides services for seniors, transitional housing for women, and clean-and-sober housing.

Paul Deslauriers, the group’s founder, said local churches in the city have been providing evening meals on different nights of the week for about 30 years but can’t handle the increase in demand.

“We have to be creative,” he said, noting that the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts is stretched thin.

Deslauriers, for example, established a permanent drop off site for non-perishables at his hometown post office in West Stockbridge. He picks up three to five large bags of donated food each week there.

Whether through the garden programs or other initiatives, Deslauriers said Community ReStart tries to make opportunities for people to join the cause.

“I’m seeing the community becoming consciously aware and realizing how joyous and uplifting it can be,” he said.


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