In the beginning, there was Tom Ferraro and there was Wegmans.
In the 40-year history of Foodlink, it’s hard to distinguish whether there was a time that it existed without its largest benefactor, Wegmans, the nationally renowned grocery store chain that began with a single store in the city of Rochester.
When the late Ferraro formed what was then called the Genesee Valley Regional Food Clearinghouse in 1978 (it was renamed Foodlink in 1991), he formed a relationship with Wegmans almost immediately.
Mary Ellen Burris, Wegmans’ vice president for consumer affairs, recalls that a local food pantry (the name eludes her nearly 40 years later) reached out to Wegmans asking for donations of its day-old baked goods. But when Ferraro approached her later with the idea of coordinating distribution of Wegmans’ unsellable foods – cans and boxes that were dented but still usable, stock that just wasn’t moving – Burris recalls thinking, “Yes, that’s what we should do. Have a relationship. Look to the future.”
Since that initial conversation, Wegmans has provided 225 million pounds of food to Foodlink. Starting in 1993, the grocery store also has funneled customer’s cash donations to the food bank. The Check Out Hunger campaign has provided nearly $11.5 million in donations, not including this year. And there have been other significant donations and support.
“If someone were to speak about Wegmans and Foodlink in terms of just food donation and dollars raised, they’d be missing the bigger picture,” said Julia Tedesco, president and CEO of Foodlink.
She credits Wegmans with helping the agency think about how it will grow in the future and what she describes as “operational excellence.”
Tedesco said, “We’ve learned to operate from them on the same level as any for-profit.” For instance, Ferraro told her he always understood when arriving at Wegmans’ warehouse to pick up merchandise that he didn’t dare be late.
Wegmans also encouraged Foodlink to think about sustainability – particularly in terms of not depending solely on them.
“From my first experience with Wegmans … they were telling us to diversify sources. They wanted us to be a strong organization, and it takes more than one partnership,” Tedesco said. “A decade ago, Wegmans product made up well over 60 percent of our mix.” Today, Wegmans foods comprise 30 percent because Foodlink followed their advice and sought other regular major donors.
Wegmans provided Foodlink ample warning that its donation stream would level out when it expanded into states outside New York.
“We knew as they expanded their markets, there might come a day,” Tedesco said.
Formerly the damaged or unsellable dry goods from all of its stores were returned to the Wegmans distribution warehouse in Rochester, and then donated to Foodlink. But when the company established another distribution center in Pennsylvania to handle distribution in Maryland and Virginia, that plan wasn’t practical for the southern stores.
“You’ve got to be frank with your friends,” Burris said.
The company decided that returned dry goods from that distribution center would instead go to the Maryland Food Bank in Baltimore. And Foodlink helped with the transition, as Ferraro visited the Maryland agency to share information on how Foodlink handled the stream of Wegmans donations.
Meanwhile, dry goods from all the Wegmans stores in New York and Massachusetts continue to be returned to the Rochester distribution center and donated to Foodlink. Each store in the chain also has perishable merchandise that is donated to various local food banks or pantries. Tedesco said Foodlink picks up at many local Wegmans stores. For many years that meant baked goods, dairy and produce. But as Wegmans moved more heavily into prepared foods and worked on reducing its waste stream, the donations have increasingly included packaged prepared foods, too, Tedesco said.
Linda Lovejoy, manager of consumer affairs for Wegmans, said “These are quick and easy meals,” and these types of donations are both used in feeding programs and made available in the help-yourself shopping area Foodlink provides for agencies picking up food.
In the last couple of years, Wegmans has provided another type of help to Foodlink that has been even more valuable than the dollars and food it sends, Tedesco said. It provides expertise in the form of its executive chef, John Emerson, or its leadership teams who choose a project to focus on and have several times chosen Foodlink.
“We build a lot of kitchens around here. We buy a lot of equipment and have culinary expertise,” Burris said.
When Foodlink built a kitchen to use for a job training initiative, it was Wegmans that urged the agency to build it with room to expand. In this inaugural year of the program, Wegmans is providing internships for all of the students participating. When Foodlink developed the Kids Café, meals supplied to afterschool programs, Wegmans helped evaluate and strengthen the nutrition of the menu.
Tedesco said the amount of food and money Wegmans donates is impressive. More importantly, though, she said, “the drive to just make us more effective and sustainable is the greatest gift they’ve given us.”
Over the years, the relationship has expanded from a few individuals to many more, Tedesco said.
“For the first 20 years, 30 years of the relationship, it was really Tom (Ferraro) for Foodlink and Mary Ellen (Burris) and Linda Lovejoy” for Wegmans. Now all three of the top executives – Danny Wegman, Nicole Wegman and Colleen Wegman – have visited with Foodlink, Tedesco said. Patrick Bourcy, a senior vice president for Wegmans, is on the Foodlink board of directors. And Emerson is a frequent contributor.
“There’s rarely a week that goes by that someone (from Wegmans) isn’t here lending their help,” Tedesco said.
Burris praised the agency. “I am a huge admirer of an organization that can continue to grow and innovate,” she said. Both she and Lovejoy said they’re pleased to see Foodlink continuing Ferraro’s plans, and expanding on them.
“Tom was totally committed to not just handing out food, but to getting at the root causes of hunger,” Burris said.