LATHAM, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Despite facing challenges created by the pandemic and inflation in the United States, the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York has remained faithful to its mission of alleviating hunger. Molly Nicol, the Chief Executive Officer for the Regional Food Bank says in 2021, their crew of 28 vehicles drove 471,000 miles and distributed 50 million pounds of food, which equates to around 42.5 million meals.
“We cover a territory from Canada down to Rockland County,” said Nicol. “That is 41 percent of the land mass of New York and covers 23 counties. As a Food Bank, we collect food from many sources like the United States Department of Agriculture, food manufacturers like Chobani, food distributors like the UNFI, food retail partners, New York farmers, and food drives.”
The Food Bank works to distribute food to individuals in need through 900 partner agencies, which include food pantries and emergency shelters. Nicol says the Food Bank serves 355,000 people a month and that they have had to make some adjustments to reach more people. “Some food pantries are not big or robust enough to have enough cooling or refrigeration space. We have a program called Just in Time, where we bring things like fresh produce and milk to the food pantry on the day they are open since we have refrigerated trucks. There are also parts of our territory with no brick-and-mortar pantry, so we have a mobile pantry. We bring a truck that has food to a community center or a firehouse and holds a pop-up pantry.”
In total, the Food Bank serves around 355,000 people a month. “All the work we do requires around $20 million a year. Of that $20 million, we must raise about $10 – 12 million. We raise funds through philanthropy and grants, individual donations, events, and appeals.”
To raise sufficient funds, the Food Bank hosts four events yearly and receives donations from other sources. “There are so many people who are kind to us that raise money on our behalf.” Some upcoming events that benefit the Food Bank include a 24-hour run hosted by Fleet Feet on Friday, the Gravel Goblin bike ride on Oct. 30, and the Troy Chili Fest on November 5.
“We try to have all our fundraisers go to general support, or wherever the need is greatest. We do that on purpose since the charitable food system is different than the retail food system. We don’t order products; we get donated products. For example, one day, we might get a truck full of cereal but in the next five days, we might not get any cereal. We don’t know when we have to go out and buy some stuff. Having events that support our overall needs allows us the maximum flexibility to respond to what is happening.”
Nicol said the pandemic impacted the Food Bank in many ways. “Many of the food pantries had to shut down because they are primarily run by volunteers in close quarters. That is when we shifted to direct distribution, where we had lines of cars in parking lots. Instead of people going to pantries, we put groceries directly into their cars. More people needed food because many people in the service industry had lost their jobs. Schools were closing down so kids couldn’t access our BackPack Program, which helps us get food to kids and their families when school is not in session. I am immensely proud of our children’s program teams. Within a week, they transitioned from a backpack program to a food box program where they got food to the schools and families could go pick them up.”
In addition, a permanent change was made to the Senior Food Delivery program. “There are some senior housing sites where we used to have those seniors go to a local food pantry to get food. During COVID, they didn’t leave their houses. Instead, we started bringing food to their facilities and setting up pop-up pantries. We have continued to do that now because we realized that many seniors have mobility and transportation problems so why are we making them go to a local pantry?”
Before the pandemic, the Food Bank distributed an average of 38 million pounds of food. That increased to 55.8 million pounds at the peak of the pandemic but now has fallen to 50 million pounds. “Right now, it is like the Bermuda Triangle of food banking. With the economy, inflation went up so more people came to see us for food. Our costs went way up but the supply of food went down. Just recently, President Biden announced a $1.5B influx of cash to the USDA so they could ramp up food distribution. We expect to see that help us in the first quarter of next year.”
Nicol credits her colleagues and volunteers at the Food Bank for continuing their work despite difficult circumstances. “We had about 16,000 volunteers. I think this work is valuable and everybody here worked throughout the pandemic. Nobody was working remotely because we can’t. I’m really proud of our team, they just kept doing their work.”
For more information about the Food Bank and upcoming events, click here.