OSWEGO — As the severity of the coronavirus rises and falls, then rises and falls along with our dreams of returning to normal, the harsh reality of a devastated economy reminds us there are many among us whose fortunes have rarely risen but now have sharply fallen further, the hungry and the poor.
Organized religion may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it cannot be denied that in this county, it has been the churches that have fed the hungry, asking nothing more of those in need than perhaps a name and address and the number of people in their household. Government has its place, but it is a begrudging one of onerous hurdles the poor and hungry often cannot surmount. The government model is food stamps, a federal program. The church model is the food pantry, a charitable program of volunteerism and kindness. That simple model has been so successful even the government has been brought in as a powerful partner. Major corporations are now large donors. It is all a striking example of the inherent good in our communities and the power of that good to enlist the larger and richer parts of society in helping those less fortunate.
The Pulaski Community Cupboard, also known as the Pulaski Community Ministries, was formed in 1994 when four area churches came together to open a single food pantry to better serve the community. The Community Cupboard is a nonprofit 501(c)3 charity that provides emergency food to residents in need throughout the Pulaski School District. They receive significant food donations from Top’s Friendly Markets and Aldi’s Markets and is an agency under both the Food Bank of Central New York and United Way of Oswego County. Jan Tighe is the acting head of the board.
As is often said, when one door closes, another opens, and when COVID-19 slammed the door on the Community Cupboard’s two largest fundraisers, the community opened their wallets.
“We can’t shout THANK YOU loudly enough! Since we were forced to cancel our spring BBQ and bingo fundraisers (our biggest fundraisers), our community has really stepped up to support the Cupboard. We are eternally grateful that you keep us doing what we do – Feeding The Need!,” they wrote on Facebook.
“The community has been more than generous giving us donations,” said Tighe in a recent interview. “We’ve had an uptick, and we’ve been able to handle the increased amount of people coming. Credit goes to the community and the Central NY Food Bank. They’re amazing. We’re doing it in partner with them.”
It’s from those donations and from the Food Bank of Central NY that the Community Cupboard gets most of the food it gives out to those in need, according to Tighe.
“It’s very humbling how generous people in the community have been,” she said.
Still, the coronavirus and the ensuing social distancing has had an effect on how the Cupboard operates.
“For a couple weeks, we shut down the pantry and made it by appointment only. And now, we’re open two days a week, but our building is very small, so our clients can’t come in, and we’ve limited it to our pantry manager and two volunteers working. So, people knock on the door, or they’ll call, make an appointment, and contact us,” Tighe said.
Though they’ve seen an “uptick,” as Tighe says, in the number of people coming to the Cupboard, it was hard for her to put an exact number on it or make a prediction of whether it will rise or fall.
“We have given up trying to predict,” she said. “So, often we say to each other, the pattern is there is no pattern.”
In addition to helping local eat, the Cupboard hopes to help those who grow some of the food they give out, and in order to do so, they have applied for a grant.
“If we do get that grant,” said Tighe, “we will partner with a local farmer to provide fresh produce.”
The Cupboard also gets some of that produce in donations from people’s gardens, Tighe said.
Their hours are Monday, 2 – 5 p.m. and Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., or by appointment at 315-298-help (4357).
“If somebody can’t make it on those days,” Tighe said, “someone will go down and make sure that they can get the food when they need it.” And there it is, a perfect summary of their kindness and concern in one sentence.
It may be a little harder to sum up the Food Bank of Central NY in a single sentence, but the basic philosophy of this large organization is the same. Based on that same kindness and concern, they are the mothership of many of the food pantries in 11 central NY counties. They are the dominant player and have brought in the dominant force of the U.S. government’s USDA, the United States Department of Agriculture. Lynn Hy is the Chief Development Officer at the Food Bank of Central NY.
“We have enough food,” Hy said, reassuring me in answer to my first question.
“We have three different food streams. The first is the United States government, the USDA Commodities program, which can be anything from perishable to non-perishable food. We also receive produce. We also receive meat, and it can be dairy products as well. And we get donated food, which can come from manufacturers, distributors, local growers. And we also have a network of about 100 different retail locations of grocery stores that are donating product to us as well. And then the third is purchasing. We do purchase food as well. And when we’re purchasing, we’re typically purchasing truckloads of food, a truckload of the same product or half a truckload of two different products right from the distributors and manufacturers.”
With so much of the economy shut down and so many newly-unemployed facing uncertain economic times, the Food Bank has seen a rapid increase in the local need for food.
“During the month of March,” Hy said, “we did see a 20% increase in the number of households overall in our 11-county service area. That equated to a distribution of 1.9 million pounds of food. We think it might be at that level, or even possibly a little bit higher, in the month of April.”
And though the number of households needing assistance grew substantially, another number grew even more.
“We did see in those numbers that 30% more children were needing assistance.” This in spite of the fact many children are still getting food from their schools.
“When the recession hit back in 2008,” Hy continued, “I’ve heard that back then we did see double-digit increases, but I know that us distributing close to two million pounds of food in a month is record-breaking for us. We’ve never been at that level before. I think the highest month we’ve had ever may have been somewhere between 1.5 and 1.6 million. When we look at an average month recently say from the past year, the average month is about 1.4 million.
“We are looking at the need,” she said. “We’re constantly looking at the numbers, looking at the flow of food we can get, foods that we can access, and keeping those on order as we need them. We are not a food pantry. All of the food is going to leave the Food Bank facility and go to the individual pantries, so that people can access food right in the communities where they live. We’re the warehousing, distribution, behind that’s working to get food out to the individual program so that people don’t have to leave their community to access healthy and nutritious food. We have a fleet of 14 trucks, anything from a cargo van all the way up to a tractor trailer.
“We’re in constant communication with the food pantries we work with to make sure that they have the inventory that they need so they can continue to meet the demand that there is out there. We go to two counties per day delivering food, just like we do throughout the entire year. So, that hasn’t changed.”
But here’s what may change. The increase in need may be with us for a long time.
“Food is moving very quickly at this time,” Hy said. “I don’t feel there’s ever going to be an overabundance where we’re saying there’s too much food, because there is a need, and that need is still increasing. Even when the pause ends and businesses start to reopen, we know that there are so many businesses that maybe aren’t going to reopen at the staffing level that they were at, or maybe they’re not going to reopen at all. So, people are going to remain unemployed or underemployed, and these increased numbers of people that we’ve been seeing at the emergency food network is going to continue because people aren’t immediately get back up on their feet. And when you’re looking at the dollars coming into your household, and you’re trying to budget, the first thing you’re going to cut from your budget is food, ‘cause you need to pay your rent or your mortgage, and you need to pay for your car to be on the road to get to your job, you need to pay for your utilities. So, food is really the first thing that you can skimp on. So, we know that this is going to be a very long-term event where we’re seeing these increased needs for months and months to come.”
So, what is the Food Bank in need of right now? “I always say that we can use monetary donations most effectively. Because those monetary donations, they allow us to cover the costs that we have, whether the cost is a food cost or potentially a transportation cost for us to be able to get the food to all of the programs that we have. Monetary donations are what we need the most. For people that are looking to help, I would say they could reach out to their local food pantries and soup kitchens in the county to see if they need additional help at this time, because they’re seeing an increase and the volunteers they’ve relied on for so long, they may need more assistance at this time.
“Typically, what we say, for every dollar that’s donated to the Food Bank, we’re able to acquire and distribute enough food for three meals. And it’s a nutritionally-balanced meal, so it has all of the components based on the government guidelines. So, it has whole grains, it has protein, and it has fruits and vegetables.”
Those resourceful people who run food banks are some of the finest jugglers I’ve ever seen. They seem to specialize in finding a way regardless of the obstacles. They don’t acknowledge the problem. They see the answer.
“I don’t see us running out of any products,” said Hy. “It’s just looking at what’s available and making it work.”
And if anyone can make it work, it’s Martha Sturtz of the Mexico Food Pantry.
“We’re swamped,” was her immediate response to my first question of how are you doing? “We’re at 333 families served, and we’ve been closed for two weeks in the month.”
They usually serve about 120 families a month. Last month they served “four times” as many as usual, Sturtz said.
“At the beginning of April, I thought we’d only have enough money for a couple of months,” she said. “That’s why I closed down. Normally, I spend $3,000 a month. I have a budget of about $40,000, and I raise that all from private donations and a $5,000 grant from the Food Bank and one through the church. But, I was like, ‘My God, I just went through $5,000 worth of food in three days,’ so we closed down for two weeks, one, because we were all exhausted. The average age of my 30 or 40 regular volunteers is 70-something.
“We’ve set it up now where people just drive in, they give their name through the window, how many children, how many adults, and how many seniors, and then they get out themselves and pick up the food we put out on a pallet, and then they drive out. When this all started happening and our numbers went up, we only let one person in to shop at a time. Then, we had paper menus, they pulled in with their car, they got the menu, they filled it out in their car and dropped it in a basket, and somebody with gloves would take it, and the workers would be at stations in different food groups and they would just pass the menu and try and fill it. Well, it took forever, ’cause we had so many people. So, I’m like, this isn’t working. So, we just said we can’t do this. So, we switched it all around, and so, we do a package for four people, and we have a list, and we’ve now removed all of the grocery store shelving and file cabinets, and tables and chairs, and I rented three storage sheds, and we moved all of the shelving units out, file cabinets, tables, chairs, all the stuff that we had acquired. And we opened it all up and we’re doing pallets by food groups. And then we have a piece of paper that tells the volunteer, and I have cloth bags, shopping bags, and somebody goes through and they fill all the cereal items, and then they pass the bag and then they put all the protein in. And so, then we have a bag with all the grains and the proteins, and we did the same thing with the fruits and vegetables. And it’s all based on the amount a family of four would get. Then, all of the USDA meats and cheeses that were frozen, that we’re getting free, we are giving them one of all of those, so, they’re getting about 40 pounds of meat. They’re getting much more than three meals for three days that they normally would get. They could go two weeks for a family of four.”
She spoke with County Legislator for Mexico, Brad Trudell about whether the county was going to do anything financially, “or set up a station where people drive in where they’re putting a case of this, a case of that in the trunk,” Sturtz said, “and they’re like, no, they don’t have the funds to do that, there’s no plan for that. So, he came and was trying to help us get organized, and we switched it all over to this pallet system, and it works pretty well. We’ve got it pretty streamlined right now.
“I’ve been getting help from the Food Bank now. The meat we just got, it was 5,000 pounds of meat, and it cost me $30, and the reason is, it’s all USDA, which we can get free. I buy everything from the Food Bank and they deliver every two weeks. We usually get eight tons of food.”
The Mexico Food Pantry is unquestionably a model of what a food pantry can be. It not only was designed to look like a grocery store, people literally shop there as though it were a grocery store, all in keeping with Sturtz’s goal of empowering the people who come there for food. It was a beautiful thing. But with the huge increase in need and the number of people coming in, things had to change. And that meant turning a beautifully-designed food pantry back into almost a warehouse.
“I said, yeah, alright, we’ll give it a try,” Sturtz said. “So then, I rented the garages and my husband and his guys, they moved all the equipment. It was a lot of work. And to me, I needed to mentally get my head around it, ‘cause I mean, it’s been years we’ve been planning this, our ideal pantry if we could do whatever we wanted, and now we had it. To see it all dismantled...you know what I mean? We were all burned out. It was a lot. When you’re doing the number that you normally do in a month in a week, in three days, it was just unbelievable. So, we closed for two weeks, and that let us clean it all out, move everything, rearrange, figure out how we were going to do it.
“When we were closed,” Sturtz continued, “I applied for some grants. I got a notice that I’m getting $3,000 from that. I requested $10,000, but they’re only giving an average of $2,500. A lot of pantries don’t go through that kind of money. They don’t have that many people, they don’t give out all the free stuff, the USDA stuff. Right now, we’re just giving everyone one of everything, and it’s a lot of meat. Milk I can get free through the Food Bank.”
She ordered 160 gallons to be delivered the next Tuesday, although she really didn’t have any place to put it. One volunteer is trying to get hold of a refrigerated truck.
“Cars start lining up at three o’clock. We don’t open ‘til five. I think they think we’ll run out. We never run out. I make sure we have enough.”
She’s gotten a lot of donations. “At the rate we’re going, I ought to be able to get through the summer. I’m thinking we’ve taken in probably $22,000. So, that’s enough to carry me for a few more months.”
They still take donations and will gladly accept more. “Every $100, I tell people,” Sturtz said, “it’s like giving me four or five times that to go buy stuff. With $100 I could have bought 150 cases of chips.”
Master jugglers all. We’re lucky to have them.