Food pantries try to do more with less

Food pantries throughout the area are trying to do more with less, but the upcoming Christmas season should help alleviate those needs — at least for now.

"Around the holidays, it’s on everybody’s minds and everybody is more generous," said Carol Hope Miller, codirector of St. Theodore Church’s food cupboard in Gates.

Pantries like at St. Theodore and the food ministries operated by the St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Parish in Rochester have seen their budgets slashed and Foodlink food donations reduced. Demand continues to outpace grant and food programs that the agency taps into, said Foodlink officials.

At the Sister Mary Regis Food Cupboard on Bay Street in Rochester, staff had been making up some of those cuts from donations that were left over from St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Parish’s mobile food pantry also run in collaboration with Foodlink, said Sister of Mercy Julia Norton, the ministry’s director.

But that bonus supply quickly dwindled, Sister Norton added.

"In the last few weeks, there was nothing left to bring," said Sister Norton said in October. "What has happened is people know where it (the pantry) is now."

The mobile program for pantries throughout the region began this summer through a Walmart Foundation donation to help alleviate the growing list of families in need of food services, said Jeanette Batiste, Foodlink’s chief operations officer.

Also over the summer, Foodlink was forced to inform pantries that financial and food donation cuts were needed because of a lack of increase in a state grant from the Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program, which has stayed constant for about a decade, Batiste added.

"The need increased so drastically that it has surpassed the capacity of that grant," she noted.

A committee of rotating members chooses how to allocate the grant for the pantries in its 10-county network, Batiste said. This year, pantry requests totaled more than $1 million, which wasn’t covered by the grant, she said.

The other shoe dropped, Batiste said, when Foodlink also was informed that the United States Department of Agriculture’s food-purchase program was reducing the amount of food available to pantries in half from 2 million pounds to 1 million, Batiste said.

Despite the funding cuts, Foodlink’s network served more than 7 million meals last year, she added.

Such work is vital, as one in six Americans live in households struggling with hunger, according to report from the USDA. In New York, 5.1 percent of families reported "very low food security," meaning they regularly skipped meals or cut the amount of food they eat, stated information at www.hungeractionnys.org/?page_id=1423.

To continue helping as many families as possible, Batiste said that Foodlink is seeking out other grant sources and is assessing its own inventory to make sure it is spending its own resources effectively. The agency also has begun its turkey drive to help local pantries put together baskets for the holiday season, she added.

The amount of baskets that area pantries anticipate preparing and distributing this season has doubled from 7,000 to 15,000 baskets, Batiste said.

Miller said that she understands Foodlink’s position, and the agency has been advising food pantries to not rely wholly on it for funding and find other sources for aid. St. Theodore has taken up that step and began grant writing.

"Every food cupboard is in the same boat," Miller said.

When its budget was slashed from $4,500 to $2,500 this summer, St. Theodore sent out about 300 letters to schools, community members and businesses asking for financial support, Miller explained. So far, the church has received about 20 responses with donations ranging from $20 to $200.

Batiste and Miller said that while the demand for food has increased dramatically already for the upcoming holiday, agencies and pantries don’t have trouble meeting the demand during this time of year. In addition to the turkey drive, Foodlink’s "Check out Hunger" campaign at area supermarkets offers people who want to help a convenient way to do so, Batiste said.

And the fact that Foodlink distributed 13 million pounds of food despite increased demand and no additional funding is a testament to the generosity of the people who live in the Finger Lakes region, she added.

"This is a season when people want to volunteer," Batiste said. "People forget about us come March when it’s not on anybody’s radar. … It is something happening all year round."

Summertime is the most difficult time at St. Theodore, something seen in many pantries, said Miller. Even families in the parish face difficulties, she said, which is why the church features a food "item of the week" in its bulletins.

"Hunger doesn’t take a vacation," Miller remarked.

EDITOR’S NOTE: To donate or to volunteer at any Foodlink pantries, call 585-328-3380.

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