WATERTOWN — Anyone driving down Coffeen Street in the city Friday would have noticed a long line of cars trailing into the grounds of Jefferson Community College, shining in the sunlight as their drivers waited patiently to collect produce grown at farms across the state.
From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., masked volunteers, many of whom were affiliated with JCC, passed out green tote bags full of dairy products and fresh produce, along with gallons upon gallons of fluid milk, to hundreds of waiting cars. Food Bank of Central New York hosted Friday’s distribution in cooperation with JCC faculty and staff.
One thousand households registered for the distribution event, though some who had not registered showed up as well for the free produce and dairy products — which Food Bank of Central New York had anticipated and was more than ready for, with extra supplies on hand if needed.
“We’re trying to do something that’s good for the community and we’re trying to keep our farmers all operating and keep the supply and demand balanced,” said Scott Gray, chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Legislators. “Farmers are in a precarious situation different than most other businesses — they have to continue to produce their products at the same rate, there’s no slowdown in the production of their product, they can’t shut anything off and it just ends up backing the whole system up, so this was a good resolution to that whole process.”
Among those in attendance at the distribution site were New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets Commissioner Richard A. Ball, Food Bank of Central New York Interim Executive Director Karen Belcher, New York Farm Bureau President David Fisher, and JCC President Ty Stone.
“Providing support to the community as a whole that has suffered through this pandemic, it’s an amazing thing,” Ms. Stone said. “On top of that, some are observing the Juneteenth holiday, and I think: what better way to observe than to serve the community?”
This drive-thru food distribution was made possible by the “Nourish New York Initiative.” On April 27, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced the launch of the initiative to purchase food and products from upstate farms that would then be directed to food banks across the state; quickly rerouting New York’s surplus agricultural products to the populations who needed them.
“I think in times of need like this one, it’s great to be able to help support our people and I appreciate the governor putting money into it and turning it around quickly,” said Mr. Fisher. “It’s helping the farmers because it’s moving product and keeping it from getting backlogged or maybe in the case of milk, stopping it from being dumped.”
Because the state’s food banks are buying agricultural products from New York farmers and processors, the Nourish New York program also provides much-needed support for the food producers and farmers who have lost markets as a result of school and restaurant closures.
“We’ve had a number of events in New York state that required rallying by the state, but this one has really been unprecedented and one severe test because we had both ends of the food supply chain get really stressed and show their vulnerability,” Commissioner Ball said. “The farmers, the production side, saw half their market disappear because half of what we produced in New York went to the food service world, and then the people had access issues and were vulnerable to begin with, so it’s been heartwarming for me as a farmer and as a Commissioner to see those two ends get connected through this Nourish New York program.”
Gov. Cuomo’s Nourish New York initiative provides $25 million for food banks across the state to purchase products of New York. Food Bank of Central New York has purchased more than 217,000 pounds of surplus dairy products from New York farmers since the launch of Nourish New York. According to Karen Belcher, interim executive director of Food Bank of Central New York, the organization received about $2.1 million in Nourish New York funds.
Food Bank of Central New York has seen up to 50 percent more households having to use the emergency food network throughout its 11-county service area. During the month of March, the Food Bank distributed 1.8 million pounds of food; in April that number rose to 2 million pounds, and in May that number was more than 1.9 million pounds.
“This is just a great way to get nutritious, high-quality items into homes right now with everything going on and what people are facing,” said Karen Belcher. “We’re so thankful for the support and the funding from Governor Cuomo because it’s helping us to help the community.”
“Our personal lives got disrupted by this pandemic, our social lives got disrupted and our professional and working lives got disrupted,” Commissioner Ball said. “Meanwhile, everybody needs to feed their families, a lot of people are going without paychecks. It’s been heartwarming to see the level of commitment by the food banks, by the volunteers. It’s a great coming together of the community to help feed people at a time when they need it. It’s a generational challenge and a generational opportunity to see how we deal with it and I’m very proud to be a part of New York state right now and New York state agriculture.”
The list of products purchased with Nourish New York funds for Friday’s distribution is as follows:
— Sharp cheddar cheese from Great Lakes Cheese in Jefferson County
— Butter and milk from Upstate Niagara Cooperative in Onondaga County
— Sour cream and cottage cheese from Crowley in Broome County
— Eggs from Hudson Eggs in Onondaga County
— Greek Yogurt from Chobani in Chenango County
— Apples from Apple Acres in Onondaga County
— Lettuce from Eden Valley in Erie County
— Tomatoes from Intergrow Farms in Oswego County