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Food Bank of CNY is behind local food pantries’ operations

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North country residents who struggle some months to put food on the table can go to their local food pantry to receive an emergency supply of groceries.

But the well-balanced meals don’t just appear on pantry shelves. While food drives directly benefit community pantries, the bulk of the items come from the Food Bank of Central New York’s 74,000-square-foot warehouse at 7066 Interstate Island Road, Syracuse.

“The food pantries and soup kitchens are outsourcing their needs to us,” said Thomas F. Slater, Food Bank executive director. “We’re one central agency covering 11 counties.”

The nonprofit serves Cayuga, Chenango, Cortland, Herkimer, Jefferson, Lewis, Madison, Oneida, Onondaga, Oswego and St. Lawrence counties. Mr. Slater said although the agency has “Central New York” in its name, its partnerships with Northern New York food pantries are just as important as the other areas it serves.

The warehouse pushes out about 12 million pounds of food each year, which is 2 million more than at its previous, smaller space in East Syracuse.

Ms. Slater said the agency moved in October 2010 to accommodate the increased need for food throughout all 11 counties, and to expand offerings that may have been too sporadic. After the move into the massive dry-goods, cooler and freezer space, the Food Bank was able to take in large amounts of U.S. Department of Agriculture commodities, such as a 250,000-pound order of chicken leg quarters. They came in 10-pound bags.

“Something we never got before now come on a regular basis — the produce, meats and dairy,” Mr. Slater said.

More product is sent to the Food Bank through partnerships with grocery chains such as Big M, Hannaford, Walmart, Sam’s Club, BJ’s Wholesale Club and Wegmans.

Mr. Slater said meat can be pulled from a grocery store’s meat case the day before its sell-by date and be put into the store’s freezer to save the product for shipment to the Food Bank.

The former Plainville Turkey Farm warehouse now resembles a Sam’s Club-style operation, where rows of goods on pallets are stacked four levels high. Mr. Slater said more than 100 products are available at any given time, including macaroni and cheese and soups in the dry-storage area, fresh fruits and vegetables and yogurt in the cooler, and meat and other items in the freezer.

The $8 million annual operation has 50 employees, from office staff to warehouse workers to vehicle drivers who deliver food to pantries and soup kitchens.

About $2 million of the operating cost comes from public donations and foundations, such as the Northern New York Community Foundation. The rest comes from grant sources that include the federal and state governments; much of that money comes from the state Department of Health’s Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program. Through that program, food pantries receive a specific grant amount they divide up each month to determine how much food they can request through the Food Bank.

Pantries can decide on their shipment dates, but there is coordination among pantries and the Food Bank to help reduce fuel costs. The agency’s fuel bill for February alone was $5,800, Mr. Slater said.

The Food Bank, Mr. Slater said, does more than push food out its doors. It promotes health and wellness among its staff, as it has a small on-site gym, and offers educational opportunities for people associated with the food pantries and soup kitchens it serves. The warehouse has a mock food pantry set up to show the best way to organize area pantries to help give clients more food choices and maximize storage space.

Included in the Food Bank’s office space is a demonstration kitchen, where the chef on staff demonstrates how to prepare various meals using a few items that clients may receive from their local food pantry.

Depauville Food Pantry coordinator Maria Donovan said she couldn’t be more thankful for the support that comes from the Food Bank even before its deliveries reach north country pantries.

She said that despite an occasional donation from a grocery store or the Cape Vincent Correctional Facility, her agency would not survive without the Food Bank’s deliveries. About 60 families per month are served at the Depauville pantry.

“A lot of pantries would otherwise end up closing, or cut back,” she said. “We’d like to have more people use us here. We don’t refuse anybody.”

While the Depauville Food Pantry offers a seven-day emergency supply of food, the allotment at other pantries might be for only three days or five days.

The Christian Life Fellowship Grace Food Pantry, Gouverneur, offers people 12 to 14 days’ worth of food per month, according to the Rev. Robert F. LaVeck, church pastor.

He said that although he missed the deadline last year to apply for Grace Food Pantry’s main grant through the Food Bank this year, his agency has benefited from being a faith-based organization. The community has donated enough food to keep St. Lawrence County’s largest food pantry in operation throughout 2013.

The Rev. Mr. LaVeck said he still buys food from the Food Bank with donations that come in.

Mr. Slater said that while operations seem to be booming, he worries that at any moment, the federal government could eliminate regional food banks and just put more money into the food stamp program.

The state recently announced $3.6 million in funding to create regional food hubs, including one in Canton, but Mr. Slater said he doesn’t see that as changing the Food Bank’s business.“I think it’s a different population, but we might be able to collaborate,” he said.

Although people can contribute funds to their local food pantry, Mr. Slater said, direct donations to the Food Bank can help stretch dollars further, since the agency can order items by the truckload at deeply discounted prices.

To contribute to the Food Bank or to learn more about the agency, visit www.foodbankcny.org.

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