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Massive operation began with station wagon full of muffins

It all started with the nooks and crannies.

Foodlink Inc.’s first big donation, on Dec. 19, 1978, was a truckload of English muffins, donated when founder Tom Ferraro, who was working at the time for Action for a Better Community, made a plea on the Eddie Meath morning television show.

Foodlink nutrition educators Jason Stewart and Sarah Miner assist with a Cooking Matters at the Store event day. (Photo courtesy Foodlink)

Foodlink nutrition educators Jason Stewart and Sarah Miner assist with a Cooking Matters at the Store event day. (Photo courtesy Foodlink)

“He made a community-wide call for food donations and he got a call from Thomas’ English Muffins saying come on over, we’ll fill you up,” said Foodlink Executive Director Julia Tedesco. “So he went over in his wood-paneled station wagon and they weren’t joking. They filled it up.”

Ferraro quickly realized that he really needed a bigger vehicle. He commandeered an ABC Head Start school bus and filled the bus with English muffins. Dec. 19 has been known as “Muffin Day” ever since.

During the late 1970s, when Ferraro was in his 20s, he saw that there was an enormous need for emergency food. He saw poverty and hunger, both in the City of Rochester and in rural areas.

“But he also recognized that at that point our food manufacturers, which we have a lot of in the Finger Lakes region, really had no mechanism or incentive to donate,” Tedesco said. “There’s a great deal of food waste generated naturally and it essentially landed in a Dumpster, and ultimately a landfill.”

And so it was that the Genesee Valley Regional Food Clearinghouse, and a handful of other foodbanks, gave area food producers an outlet for addressing food insecurity in the region. In 1980, Ferraro helped found the national food bank network, Feeding America.

The new foodbank remained under ABC’s purview for four years, until the organization separated and became the Genesee Valley Regional Food Clearinghouse, Foodlink’s predecessor. That year, the food bank distributed 620,000 pounds of food.

Foodlink’s staff poses for a photo outside its facility on Hunger Action Day, a national awareness campaign on Sept. 13, 2018. (Photo courtesy Foodlink)

Foodlink’s staff poses for a photo outside its facility on Hunger Action Day, a national awareness campaign on Sept. 13, 2018. (Photo courtesy Foodlink)

In 1989, Wegmans Food Markets Inc. donate its old facility on West Avenue to GVRFC, a move that proved critical to the nonprofit’s growth.

“It was the first sort of proper warehouse and offices that the organization had,” Tedesco said. “And that’s where we really started growing as an organization.”

Two years later, GVRFC rebranded as Foodlink, ushering in a wave of new products and services that continue to grow the organization.

In 1993, Foodlink began one of the nation’s first Kids Cafe programs, which provides healthy meals to thousands of schoolchildren each weekday. In 1999, Foodlink moved to 936 Exchange St., a multi-story building donated to the agency by the Kolko family. The building had previously housed Kolko Paper Co.

“Tom would always see it as Wegmans setting the example, paving the way by donating their building that really inspired this incredibly generous family to donate their facility,” Tedesco said. “We were there over a decade and that’s really where things began to grow and innovate.”

It was around that time that Fernando Santiago, founding partner of law firm Santiago Burger LLP, became involved with Foodlink as a board member.

“Tom always had this vision of Foodlink and what it would be. He was always five steps ahead,” Santiago said. “We just tried to work hard as a board to see if we could try to implement his vision. It was really kind of a labor of love.”

Ferraro always was looking for new opportunities to impact the root causes of hunger. In 2001, Foodlink established a Community Kitchen to raise the bar of institutional food service. The Community Kitchen provides hot meals to kids through its Kids Café and Summer Meals program.

“Tom would use these little quotes of wisdom that were well known, but he would always sprinkle them throughout his discussions. One was ‘we’ll turn some lemons into lemonade.’ It was oddly appropriate because we suddenly as an organization were going to try to prepare meals for kids that need it,” Santiago recalled. “That can be a daunting task for an organization that hasn’t done it before.”

Foodlink during that time also acquired a farm, at which the organization grew hydroponic greens.

“We grew greens and sold them at the market to earn revenue,” Tedesco said. “But even during all those years, the core of our work remained food banking and getting donated food, purchasing small amounts of food and distributing it back out.”

Tedesco was hired in early 2009 to serve as chief development officer.

“We were seeing the impacts of the recession at that point. All of a sudden we saw a spike in demand that hadn’t been seen in several years. And so we went into overdrive essentially,” she said. “A lot of families were experiencing food insecurity, and what we saw was a huge growth in food insecurity, particularly in suburban areas.”

By 2011, Foodlink had outgrown its Exchange Street facility and in December of that year moved into its current home on Mt. Read Boulevard. The site features 80,000 square feet of warehouse space and the organization’s new, 28,000-square-foot kitchen. Tedesco said the organization grew roughly 30 percent the first two years in its new building.

“The year I started we distributed about 8.5 million pounds of food,” she recalled. “By the time we got here we distributed 12 million pounds of food.”

After a seven-year run, Foodlink ended its Freshwise Farms organic greenhouse operation in 2012, shifting resources to more viable programs serving pressing needs. It would not be the organization’s last stint with farming.

“We have very generous donors in the region, food retailers and manufacturers, but it doesn’t meet all the dietary needs of all the people we serve,” Tedesco said. “We were able to think about using unrestricted dollars to purchase food that complemented what we got donated; healthier food. And that mostly took the form of purchased produce from regional farmers.”

It changed Foodlink’s model completely, Tedesco said.

“We went from what people think of as food banking being a dented can or a crushed box that got donated and it started increasingly being lean meats, proteins and fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said.

As the community recovered from the recession, Foodlink began to get a handle on the new style of food distribution.

“Having this space here and a little breathing room to think more strategically about the root causes of hunger enabled us to take some leaps of faith in building new programs and innovating,” Tedesco said. “We started investing a lot more in urban agriculture.”

Foodlink acquired a plot of land on Lexington Avenue that now has dozens of raised beds that some 60 refugee families take care of. The land has a hoop house and an apiary, and fruit trees that have been planted eventually will become more of an orchard. The families get to keep what they farm.

Foodlink fights hunger in a number of ways, from its Community Kitchen to nutrition education to mobile pantries, among other things, all a result of Ferraro’s pioneering thinking.

“Foodlink is always very innovative and entrepreneurial. They got that from Tom and Julia, and her management team have done an excellent job of continuing to live that way,” said board Chairwoman Arline Santiago.

Ferraro died from pancreatic cancer in 2014, without a succession plan. Tedesco shared responsibility for the organization with Chief Operating Officer Jeanette Batiste until Batiste left the following year. Since Ferraro’s death, Foodlink has honored his spirit and drive through several programs.

Although the organization has for some time operated a Community Kitchen, it didn’t occupy the same Mt. Read Boulevard space with the rest of the organization. In 2017, a new kitchen was built at Mt. Read which features 28,000 square feet of commercial kitchen space and houses its Value-Added Processing program, which slices and bags apples for kids at schools across the state.

The agency also offers workforce development and has a partnership with the Greater New York Hospital Association and local healthcare systems to bring in medical students and residents to teach them about food insecurity and how it may affect their patients.

Board chair Santiago said what the future holds for Foodlink is more growth.

“I think an expansion more into the real essence of the issues; food insecurity is one of the aspects of what happens to people, but it really is overall poverty,” she said. “It’s bigger than just one bullet, and it really is a fight against poverty.”

Foodlink recently spent some time developing a new strategic plan, the first since Ferraro’s death. A couple of things emerged during the planning phase, including the desire to engage in advocacy at a deeper level, Tedesco said.

“For so many years of our history we have been so focused on doing the work, and we will never lose that focus. That is ultimately what we’re here to do,” she said. “But we’ve grown our programs and services and have not really deeply engaged in public policy advocacy or community organizing.”

That’s likely going to change in the next few years, she said, although there is no concrete plan for what that will look like. But it likely would have had Ferraro’s stamp of approval.

“Saying ‘yes’ is his legacy,” Tedesco said of her mentor. “Connecting the dots where other people failed to. There was just an energy and enthusiasm around him and nothing could wait. That energy is still here. It’s still here in this building.”

vspicer@bridgetowermedia.com / 585-653-4021 / @Velvet_Spicer

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