It’s been more than six years since the death of Tom Ferraro, founder of Foodlink, yet those who knew him best still grow emotional when speaking of him.
They refer to the man who founded one of the first food banks in America as humble, a leader, a risk taker, a diamond-in-the-rough, a humanitarian and a sound judge of character.
Junior Achievement of Central Upstate New York Inc. is adding to Ferraro’s accolades by naming him a 2020 inductee to its Business Hall of Fame. This year’s Rochester Business Hall of Fame inductees will be honored from 4 to 4:45 p.m. Oct. 26 during a “Celebration of Entrepreneurship” virtual awards ceremony. For more information or to register, go the website for the Junior Achievement of Central Upstate New York.
Of course, Ferraro is best known in the Greater Rochester community for tackling the root causes of poverty from many different angles.
“It was his mission in life to end hunger,” says Julia Tedesco, executive director and CEO of the regional food bank, and a mentee of Ferraro.
Mary Ellen Burris, retired senior vice president of consumer affairs for Wegmans, says Ferraro had a talent for hiring quality employees, including Jamie Saunders, now head of the United Way of Greater Rochester. “He was not afraid to hire people to supplement the strengths he had,” Burris notes.
Ferraro, an only child, grew up on Dengler Street on the west side of Rochester. His extended Italian family occupied five adjacent houses. Ferraro was only one generation removed from the days when employers discriminated against Italian immigrants, says Mike Ferraro, 43, the eldest of his three sons. “He saw how hard his family had to work to overcome that,” says Ferraro. After moving to Gates, Tom Ferraro was in the first four-year graduating class at Gates-Chili High School.
He described himself as a wild youth, says Tedesco. His wake-up call arrived in his mid-20s after he was seriously injured in a car accident that required him to undergo hip and knee replacements. “He lived in chronic pain the rest of his life,” says Tedesco. The accident, she adds, was Ferraro’s “come to Jesus moment — he wanted to make a difference.”
After his recovery, Ferraro was hired by Action for a Better Community. Working in rural areas, he observed a significant amount of food waste by large manufacturers. Meanwhile, there were only a few food pantries in Rochester, which was experiencing a huge uptick in hunger, Tedesco says.
Ferraro began serving as a link to food pantries. It was the morning he appeared on the Eddie Meath Show (Meath was a local TV and radio personality) to appeal for food donations that his future was sealed. A representative of Thomas’ (English Muffins) offered a donation of bread products. Ferraro pulled up to a Thomas’ warehouse and filled his station wagon with food. From these humble beginnings, Foodlink was gradually born. While the organization marks its founding as 1978, the year of the muffin rescue, it wasn’t officially incorporated until 1983, when it distributed about 600,000 pounds of food.
Ferraro was a board member of Second Harvest (now Feeding America), working with peers to establish a nationwide network of food banks. There are now 200 U.S. food banks, feeding more than 46 million people. He also helped create seven food banks in New York state and the New York state Department of Health’s Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program, which continues to provide millions of dollars to hunger relief, food safety and nutrition education programs each year.
Under Ferraro’s 36-year leadership, Foodlink blossomed into an organization that distributes more than 18 million pounds of food annually to area soup kitchens, food pantries, shelters, group homes, senior centers, day cares, after-school programs and other nonprofit organizations. These days, Foodlink operates a 90,000-square-foot warehouse, an industrial kitchen, a fleet of refrigerated trucks and a computerized inventory system. It also runs more than 30 community programs aimed at ending hunger, improving nutrition and strengthening the regional food system.
Ferraro was particularly proud of Foodlink’s 40-year collaboration with Wegmans. He was still at ABC when he first approached Burris for food donations. “We were already donating bread to a food pantry,” Burris, now retired, recalls. “Wegmans hates waste so it was a no brainer to collaborate with Tom and enlarge the program we had begun.” Since then, Wegmans has donated millions of pounds of food annually and sponsored the Check Out Hunger campaign, Foodlink fundraisers and the Foodlink Career Fellowship program.
When Wegmans closed a store, the space was donated to Foodlink for a distribution facility. “Tom saw the relocation to Mt. Read Blvd. as this culmination of everything we had worked for,” says Tedesco.
Foodlink’s success was, in part, due to Ferraro’s willingness to take enormous risks, says Tedesco. Yet he would be the first to admit when an experiment, like a hydroponic farm, didn’t work out, she adds. “A lot of initiatives didn’t, but we always learned from them.”
Over time, Ferraro’s resolve to attack the root causes of hunger deepened. He became involved in workforce development, helping grow other nonprofit organizations, childhood nutrition and culinary and farm education programs. Ferraro also was a pioneer of urban agriculture, local value-added processing, and converting food waste into fuel and nutrient-rich soil.
From the day Tedesco joined Foodlink in 2009, she and Ferraro began to discuss succession planning. But four months after his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, he died at age 67, leaving his board to design a succession plan.
Ferraro would be proud of Foodlink’s response during the pandemic, but dismayed at the long lines for emergency food,” says Tedesco. He would be gratified to learn that one of his dreams — the Foodlink Career Fellowship — is a reality. Individuals facing barriers to employment are trained in culinary skills that that pay a living wage.
“The graduates are the first generation in their families not to have to rely on emergency food,” says Tedesco.
Foodlink is stronger than ever, notes Burris, which she considers a tribute to Ferraro’s leadership ability.
“The people he hired were able to change with the needs of the community, over time. That’s a legacy he would be very proud of.”
Donna Jackel is a Rochester-area freelance writer.
Foodlink leverages the power of food to end hunger and build healthier communities in Allegany, Genesee, Livingston, Monroe, Ontario, Orleans, Seneca, Wayne, Wyoming and Yates counties.
1999 Mt. Read Blvd
Rochester, NY 14615
Phone: (585) 328-3380