MARK GILLESPIE/Livingston County News
Foodlink staffers Jeremy Barnes and Mayhun Lewis hand out fresh food at a recently Avon Food Pantry distribution at the East Avon Fire Department.
Hope where there’s hunger
It’s a Friday morning and a big white Foodlink truck is parked outside the East Avon Fire Department. Dozens of local residents go inside to the main garage where staff from Foodlink and Avon Food Pantry are handing out bags of cereal, canned vegetables and other non-perishable items.
Today, however, Foodlink brought along a bonus — fresh fruits and vegetables, large plastic jugs of orange juice and fresh bread and pastries.
It’s hard to say from looking what demographic category applies to those who show up for the free food distribution. Some are elderly, some are young parents, some are — as far as appearances go — middle-aged professionals.
What they have in common is “food insecurity,” says Foodlink Director of Development Julia Tedesco.
“Technically, ‘food insecurity’ is when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from,” she said. “A lot of people think of ‘hunger’ as Third World starvation, but it can also mean a middle- or higher-income family member who has become unemployed and can no longer afford to make their mortgages or car payment.”
Foodlink is one of 208 members of the National Network of Foodbanks. Founded 35 years ago, Foodlink serves 10 counties in Western New York from Lake Ontario to the Pennsylvania state line.
Foodlink is often confused with local food pantries, said Tedesco, who explained that Foodlink serves as a warehouse and distributor for donated foods, while the local food banks provide the volunteer staff to deliver the food to those in the community who are in need.
Food pantries also use Foodlink as but one of many sources for stocking its shelves. Organizations like the Avon Food Pantry, Dansville Ecumenical Foodshelf, and Catholic Charities of Livingston County receive donations from many local sources as well.
In Livingston County, Foodlink estimates that food insecurity in the total population is around 12.6 percent. The problem among children is even higher: 21.2 percent, or around 2,780 children.
Foodlink promotes a “caseworker model,” where staff and volunteers are asked to address the specific underlying causes of hunger.
“They get more than a bag of food; they are learning about how to receive benefits, access a social worker and seek help from other agencies.”
Tedesco says Foodlink can complement the federal food stamp program because the government only provides “a small portion of what a real food budget needs to be. Neither food stamps nor food pantries provides 100 percent of what a family needs.”
Additionally, unlike food stamps, food pantries do not do “means testing” to determine whether a family genuinely needs provision, though Tedesco says food pantry patrons operate on a strong honor system. “I’ve never seen abuse of the system. People who don’t need it typically don’t show up at a food pantry.”
Last year, Foodlink provided over 150 tons of food to Livingston County food pantries — as well as soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Foodlink also serves non-emergency agencies like group homes, child care centers and afterschool programs.
The product comes from companies like Wegmans Supermarkets, Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club — which donate overstocked and damaged items.
“What will happen is a shopping cart might dent a cereal box on a shelf. It’s no longer aesthetically-pleasing, but the food is still good to eat,” said Tedesco.
Local food processors will also donate product that didn’t meet the company’s “brand standards.”
“There might be too little cinnamon in the apple sauce or too much oregano in the pasta sauce.”
“But companies are always looking for ways to decrease these errors and grocery chains are trying to cut back on damages — so the amount of product we purchase is increasing.”
Food delivery isn’t Foodlink’s only goal. The organization also aims to teach people how to prepare food and make nutritious choices.
Childhood obesity, as Tedesco points out, can sometimes be a symptom of food insecurity. Families which lack the knowledge to prepare fresh meats and vegetables often turn to high-calorie options.
“There is a perception that fresh fruits and vegetables take longer to prepare and are more difficult to prepare,” says Tedesco.
“We don’t just give away free food, we want to show people how to grow their own food and prepare it in their kitchen. We want them to learn to shop inexpensively.”
To that end, Foodlink offers the “Cooking Matters” program, from an outreach program called “Share Our Strength” funded by the ConAgra Foods Foundation and Wal-Mart Foundation.
The program brings in culinary and nutrition experts to offer classes on how to prepare fresh foods to provide the best possible nourishment to families.
ConAgra Foods has also teamed up with Foodlink in a national public awareness campaign called “Child Hunger Ends Here.” The campaign will raise funds to provide meals to 16 million children in the U.S. struggling with hunger every day.
The company seeks to donate five million meals this school year to Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger relief program.
To participate, consumers can buy specially-marked packarges of Con-Agra Foods brands, then visit ChildHungerEndsHere.com to enter an eight digit code. For each code entered ConAgra will donate one meal.
For more information about Foodlink and its partner organizations, go to foodlinkny.org. Check the Livingston County News “Choices” section each week for food pantry hours and contact information.