Food experts warned for years how fragile the global food supply chain is. Now, dairy farmers must dump milk even as some stores limit sales; tons of fresh produce is left to rot as farm workers, many without health insurance, risk their lives to do their jobs.
Today, volunteers in a Cortland County food coalition are cobbling together a system to get the food the farmers produce to the people going hungry — an effort that began months ago but accelerated with the coronavirus pandemic.
“All of a sudden, here we are, and we’re trying to figure out what we can do with what’s available,” said Susan Williams, assistant director of Seven Valleys Health Coalition.
The initial effort, which would create a network to divert food waste as well as a public education campaign, was funded by a $200,000 grant from the state Department of Environmental Conservation and a $50,000 grant from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York. The program is administered by Bruce Adams, city’s superintendent of wastewater, but most of the work is done by Seven Valleys and volunteers. One of the goals of this program was to set up a facility to store local food that would otherwise have been wasted.
That facility, Williams said, is needed right now.
For the moment, volunteers plan to store dry goods and refrigerated and frozen foods in the commissary at SUNY Cortland, which is offering space not being used now that the campus is mostly empty of students.
“We have very limited supplies in the space right now, so we have the capacity,” said Jeff Scott, director of dining services.
How you can help
You can donate to the charity of your choice, but Susan Williams of Seven Valleys Health Coalition suggests considering the local United Way’s COVID-19 fund, partly because the United Way works with all the other local charities operating food banks and can allocate money and resources. Also, the Cortland Community Foundation matches every dollar donated to the fund up to $25,000.
This effort has been made possible by the Hunger Coalition, a sub-committee of Seven Valleys that brings together local nonprofits and community leaders. That coalition has now become the center of a wider effort to get food to the increasing number of people who need it, Williams said.
Cortland County Social Services Commissioner Kristen Monroe said earlier this week that the county has received almost 200 applications since March 18 for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, food stamps, nearly twice what it normally gets. About half those applications are from people who lost their jobs because of COVID-19.
Food banks have changed how they operate to deal with hunger in the community, such as at the Salvation Army in Cortland. It used to have a soup kitchen on Wednesdays, but now leaves packed lunches on a table every day for people to grab. The agency also delivers two weeks of supplies to the doors of people who need them in a joint effort with the local United Way and Catholic Charities. In its first two weeks, the program fed 192 families, or 612 people. Normally, the local Salvation Army serves about 100 families per month.
The Hunger Coalition’s partnership with SUNY Cortland could continue beyond the end of the college semester, Scott said.
“We’re going to support the immediate need and see where things go in the future,” he said.
The coalition is also trying to set up a system to get locally grown food to food banks, said Liz Pickard, a graduate student in food science at Syracuse University who represents the local chapter of the Central New York Young Farmers Coalition.
“We have farmers here who are ready to respond,” Pickard said.
The Hunger Coalition is trying to set up orders with local farmers to grow particular crops — something that has to happen soon.
“We need to order seeds,” she said. “We need to plan for things.”
But other aspects of getting food to people in need requires immediate action, such as the storage of food at SUNY, Williams said.
“No time to plan, just do it,” she said. “That’s where we are right now.”
But these immediate efforts can lay the groundwork for something more lasting, which can help in future crises, Pickard said, such as the fallout of climate change or environmental degradation, or other unforeseen disruptions to the global supply chain.
”We’re jumping into action so the county has plans for some of these issues that might pop up,” Williams said.