Food relief experts challenge charity model

Foodlink hosted a panel Wednesday called "Beyond Charity: Ideas to transform our broken food system." (Provided)
Foodlink hosted a panel Wednesday called “Beyond Charity: Ideas to transform our broken food system.” (Provided)

Food banks are a stop-gap measure, not the answer to hunger, agreed a panel brought together Wednesday, March 21, by Foodlink.

And the question is not really how to solve hunger, but how to solve poverty, they said.

“At a very basic level we need to commit to shorten, end the food lines,” said Julia Tedesco, executive director of Foodlink, the regional foodbank, and moderator of the discussion. About 60 people turned out for the panel presentation Wednesday afternoon at Three Heads Brewery.

“We have to stop looking at this as if the problem is how to build a better food bank,” said Daniel Bernhard of Mushroom Cloud, a Toronto consulting firm, and co-author of a report on nonprofit grocery stores whose purpose is to provide more access by low-income people. He is promoting the idea of the Social Purpose Grocery store that can stretch the low-income person’s food dollar so they have money available for other important expenses.

“It’s not a matter of whether people have enough food, it’s a matter of whether people have enough resources to buy food,” said Andy Fisher, author of “Big Hunger,” a book how corporate food interests have compromised the emergency food network.

Bernhard and Fisher said the charity model of supplying emergency food fails to address underlying causes of hunger, is unreliable, and doesn’t act in the best nutritional interests of the people who need help. Food donations, for instance, often include foods that are unhealthy or don’t fit dietary needs or customs of the people receiving the donations, they said.

“Charity is not justice. Charity is what a society does when there is no justice,” Fisher said. “We’re not going to solve hunger unless people have their share of power, their fair share.”

Fisher told a story about a food panty in the Washington, D.C., area that decided to decline donations of pastry, candy, sheet cakes and soda pop. It found a farmer who was glad to take the pastries and feed them to his pigs. But after about a month, the farmer said he couldn’t take the pastries off their hands anymore—the sweets were making the pigs too aggressive and fight.

Bernhard used Walmart to illustrate how large corporations may benefit from the emergency food system more than they help it with their donations to food banks. Some $13 billion in SNAP benefits are redeemed in Walmart each year, he said, which pays its workers so little that it has employees whose job is to assist other employees in signing up for these so-called food stamps. The employees who receive SNAP benefits then spend them at their workplace.

Some of the largest food producers and retailers in the country, including Walmart, are on the board of the national food banking network, Feeding America, he pointed out.

“These people do not have an interest in solving the problem.” Bernhard said. “They’re in business to make money, but it’s not necessarily our job to help them do it.”

Bernhard said the Canadian equivalent of Feeding America throws out one-quarter of the donations it receives because they’re unsuitable or unfit to serve. Yet the agency bears the costs of transporting those donations to the center, sorting the donations, and then disposing of them.

“How can we get into the market, not just clean up its mess?” he asked.

Foodlink has been trying to do that with its Curbside Market, a mobile vendor of produce and eggs that visits areas of the city that don’t have access to fresh-food groceries. Foodlink paired the initiative with a federal program that basically doubles the purchasing power of patron’s food stamps. Mitch Gruber, chief programs officer at Foodlink, said he experienced resistance from funders when starting Curbside Market, because it went against the model of giving charity.

“This is not just about charity, it’s about economic development,” he said. “The curbside market has really leveraged people’s economic power.”

Fisher said food banks need to spend part of their resources on advocating for change in policies to work on poverty and not just a charitable response to hunger, which he called the “hunger industrial complex.” It’s always been easier to get people to rally around hunger than it is to delve into solving poverty, he said.

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MCC addresses hunger with second food pantry

A returning student at Monroe Community College thought getting a job on campus while taking classes would make things easier than when she worked in food service at a local nursing home.

But what she didn’t realize was the extra $100 a month she’d be earning on campus would disqualify her from receiving food stamps anymore.

“It was rough transitioning over to not getting the food stamps every month,” said the student, who asked not to be identified. Luckily for her, MCC also just opened a food pantry at the downtown campus, where 72 percent qualified for a federal Pell Grant, one measure of poverty. A similar pantry, started by students, has been operating for 17 years at MCC’s Brighton campus, where 50 percent are eligible for Pell Grants.

The need for such programs is not limited to MCC campuses or community colleges in general, as even private four-year schools are starting to address the issue. In March 2017, the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, a research organization focusing on equitable outcomes of college education, published results of a survey of students at 70 community colleges: two out of three students experienced food insecurity. And half of those students also experienced the lowest level of security, which includes physical hunger pangs.

Food insecurity—limited access to safe and nutritious food—has major ramifications for college students, said Peggy Harvey-Lee, director of community engagement at MCC. “Students don’t leave college for academic reasons. They leave for life challenges,” she said.

“It’s an issue across all ZIP codes—it’s not just an inner-city urban issue,” Harvey-Lee said. Indeed, in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s state of the state address in January, he outlined a statewide focus on student hunger, and proposed all 64 colleges in the SUNY and CUNY systems add food cupboards. About half have them now.

Students have a range of choices at the MCC food pantry
Students have a range of choices at the MCC food pantry

MCC’s pantry is called DWIGHT, which stands for Doing What Is Good & Healthy Together, a name designed to avoid the stigma sometimes associated with needing assistance, said Kim DeLardge, director of student services at the downtown campus. She said students can say “I’m going to go see DWIGHT” rather than calling it a food pantry.

DWIGHT actually has two components—a food cupboard where a student can find enough food to feed herself or her family for three days, and a bright yellow wagon that makes weekly rounds providing free snacks to students.

At both DWIGHT locations, students can come back as often as every three days and are given choices across a menu of items such as vegetables, protein, and grains. A single person is encouraged to select three protein items, five fruit or vegetable items and two grains selections to provide a balanced diet.  Recently the shelves holding protein choices offered at least nine different choices, including peanut butter, canned chili and stew, tuna fish, canned chicken, and both canned and dried beans.

“We also give them community resources,” said Betty Stewart, director of student life and leadership development at the Brighton Campus. Using the students’ ZIP codes, staff can direct them to off-campus food cupboards and services.

“Food pantries are available for everyone, but students don’t always know where they are,” Harvey-Lee said. And they’re sometimes reluctant to ask for the help. “Students have not in the past been forthcoming about their issues of hunger,” Harvey-Lee said.

The student who lost her food stamps said she might not have been brave enough to seek help off campus. “It really makes me feel good that my place of employment and my place where I’m getting my education is really meeting my personal needs,” she said.

DWIGHT is a food pantry and a yellow wagon that supplies snacks at MCC. (Diana Louise Carter)
DWIGHT is a food pantry and a yellow wagon that supplies snacks at MCC. (Diana Louise Carter)

In just six weeks that the food pantry has been available downtown, 20 to 30 students have made use of it, staff said.

Stewart described a 19-year-old student whom a staff person recommended to her after noticing that something seemed to be wrong. The student had been living in his car for the previous 10 days and hadn’t had a real meal in all that time. By the time he got to her, he had found some lodging, but had nothing else, including food. After she helped him put together a box of food from the pantry, he told her, “This is just the most wonderful, kind thing anybody has done for me,” she said.

Another student was receiving regular food pantry help for about three weeks as she adjusted to a newly single life and paying the rent on her own. She wasn’t seen for a while before she returned, bearing a big box of food she wanted to donate to others. Two or three other students who shopped at DWIGHT also have returned the favor.

The downtown DWIGHT was started with a state grant that helps supply food from Foodlink, the regional food bank. Other donations have come from student food drives, the American Association of Community College Women, and different departments at MCC. The financial aid department, for instance, decided to have each member attending a holiday party bring a food-pantry donation rather than gifts for each other.

One supply of food is a food-for-fines program offered by the college’s parking services department. Started in 2016, the program allows students with up $100 in pending parking fines to pay for them with food donations. The college’s parking office schedules four days in December when the tickets can be paid off this way.

“For any ticket they have, that’s $100 or less, they have to provide six food items, and that will take care of it,” said Denise Calarco, parking services director at MCC. “We’re helping the students in two different ways—we’re helping the students who have fines and really can’t pay for the fines. Also, we’re helping students who can’t pay for food, either.”

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Culinary event in Geneva to raise funds for Foodlink

feastA new culinary event in Geneva is expected to raise thousands of dollars for Feeding America’s Finger Lakes and Genesee Valley food bank and regional hub, Foodlink Inc.

The inaugural FEAST—Feeding Everyone at Shared Tables—will benefit the Rochester-based nonprofit that serves 10 counties by distributing food to a network of hundreds of human service agencies. Foodlink last year served more than 1.1 million meals and snacks to children in the region.

FEAST is the brainchild of Three Brothers Wineries and H.J. Stead Co. executive chef Samantha Buyskes. The event will be held at the Cracker Factory on April 24.

“I really wanted to create something unique and special for Geneva,” Buyskes said in a news release. “I’m hoping that celebrating the area’s rich culinary offerings and supporting the great work Foodlink does in our community will be an enticing opportunity for many local foodies.”

Buyskes plans to invite some 20 chefs to the event and hopes to sell 250 tickets. General admission for the event is $35, with VIP tickets, which include a private, pre-event reception, will go for $55.

“We were pleasantly surprised and so grateful that Samantha chose to partner with Foodlink for this amazing event,” Foodlink’s director of development and community engagement Heather Newton said. “Our organization truly understands the power of food, and we hope this event can bring local residents together and become a highlight for the community for years to come.”

A South Africa native, Buyskes opened her first restaurant in Trumansburg, Tompkins County, in 2002. In 2007 she joined Sheldrake Point Vineyard and brought her focus on time and place, seasonality, community and connection there. At Three Brothers Wineries Buyskes oversees the food program for its café and restaurant, H.J. Stead.

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Nonprofits receive grant to help with childhood hunger needs

The Joy in Childhood Foundation on Wednesday awarded grants to the YMCA of Greater Rochester and Foodlink Inc.
The Joy in Childhood Foundation on Wednesday awarded grants to the YMCA of Greater Rochester and Foodlink Inc.

Two area nonprofits will receive grants from the Joy in Childhood Foundation, the charitable foundation supported by Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins, as part of a $2.3 million nationwide commitment to address childhood health and hunger needs.

The YMCA of Greater Rochester has received a $7,800 grant, while Foodlink Inc. has received a $10,000 grant.

The YMCA grant will support the organization’s Weekend BackPack initiative, which provides children in need with bags of nutritious food they can discreetly take home and easily prepare on their own when school is closed during weekends and holidays.

“We would like to thank Dunkin’ Donuts and the Joy in Childhood Foundation for this generous donation that helps us address the issue of childhood hunger,” said James Smith, urban district executive for YMCA. “Weekends can be stressful for kids who rely on free or reduced-price school meals for nutrition, so we send children home on Fridays with shelf-stable, healthy food and snacks to keep their bellies full and their spirits up until Monday morning.”

The Foodlink grant is designated to support the organization’s Summer Meals programs, which is an effort to ensure that children 18 and younger have access to free, healthy meals while school is out for summer.

“This funding will help ensure that those in need, especially children, have adequate access to healthy meals throughout the summer,” said Health Newton, Foodlink’s director of development and community engagement. “We are extremely grateful to the Joy in Childhood Foundation for supporting Foodlink and Rochester’s Summer Meals program, which continues to innovate and expand to serve high-need neighborhoods in our community.”

The Joy in Childhood Foundation has granted more than $12 million to hundreds of charities across the country since its launch in 2006.

“We’re proud to give back to our community and provide funding to both Foodlink and the YMCA, two organizations that share our commitment to address one of the biggest challenges kids face today: hunger,” said Sean Borromei, operations manager for Dunkin’ Brands Inc. “We are happy to share the love because we know what a key role these organizations play in making a measurable impact on the lives of children and helping them reach their full potential.”

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Check Out Hunger campaign begins this weekend

Thirty Rochester-area Tops Friendly Markets stores will participate in this winter’s Check Out Hunger campaign, benefiting Foodlink Inc.’s anti-hunger programs.

The campaign, which runs from Jan. 28 through Feb. 17, allows shoppers to make a small donation at the cash register. Shoppers can round up their bill or make donations of $2, $3 or $5 to help provide food for individuals living in Foodlink’s 10-county region.

“Tops has been a tremendous supporter of Foodlink for years and we’re excited to kick off another Check Out Hunger campaign with them,” Heather Newton, Foodlink’s director of development and community engagement, said in a statement. “Customers who donate can be assured that these funds are going to programs designed to help end hunger and lift up thousands of families who are struggling to make ends meet.”

Other local grocers have joined the Check Out Hunger campaign, including Abundance Cooperative Market, Hegedorns and Lori’s Natural Foods, among others. In addition, Knucklehead Craft Brewing in Webster is pledging to donate $1 for every Kathy’s Kreme Ale sold at the brewery during the campaign.

Since 2006, Tops has raised more than $3.6 million through the Check Out Hunger campaign.

“At Tops, we believe in eradicating hunger and assisting our fellow neighbors in need, and so supporting this effort on an annual basis is something that we gladly stand behind,” said Tops chairman and CEO Frank Curci.

Foodlink annually helps feed more than 200,000. Last year the organization distributed 17.4 million pounds of food.

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Rosa Wims continues Thanksgiving tradition by feeding 300

Rosa's Thanksgiving DinnerAt 94, Rosa Wims shows little sign of slowing down. “Mother Wims,” as she’s fondly known to the community, plans to feed hundreds of hungry people today.

This year’s feast marks the 32nd year of the annual Rosa’s Thanksgiving Dinner. The event traditionally welcomes hundreds of Wims’ neighbors from Corn Hill and the surrounding communities to feast on turkey and all the fixings.

“Every bit of 300,” Wims said about the number of people she’ll feed Friday. “If more come, we’ll always have a pea in the pot for ‘em.”

Wims has dedicated her life to public service. She is recognized as the first black nurse’s aide at Rochester General Hospital and later became a licensed practical nurse. She founded the Faith community Health Awareness Center on Genesee Street, which later was renamed in her honor as the Rosa Wims Family Wellness Center.

Wims’ annual Thanksgiving tradition began as a small holiday gathering on Jefferson Avenue. Volunteers from the health care community help serve the food, much of which is prepared by Foodlink Inc.’s Community Kitchen. Turkeys are donated by Palmer Food Services.

Although Wims still participates in the annual event, in recent years she has ceded some of the organizational details to her friends and Foodlink’s staff.

Today’s event starts at noon at the Montgomery Neighborhood Center and lasts until the food runs out.

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Farm bill commenters urge support for food stamps, farm research

Though the listening session was held in a craft brewery, most people who commented Tuesday, Oct. 31, on the upcoming renewal of the federal farm bill talked either about food stamps, research or young farmers.

The session at Rohrbach’s Brewing Co. on Railroad Street, just outside the Rochester City Public Market, drew more than 40 farmers and others interested in agricultural and food-access issues. They shared their thoughts with state commissioners, a state senator and a representative of the state Farm Bureau organization.

New York Agriculture Commissioner Richard A. Ball explained that about 80 percent of the funding in the federal bill supports the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps. Other parts of the bill support conservation and forestry programs, as well as agriculture programs. Hence, Sam Roberts, Commissioner of Temporary and Disability Assistance, and Kenneth Lynch, assistant commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, were also part of the tour. State Sen. Rich Funke and John Sorbello, district representative to the New York State Farm Bureau, were also on the panel.

Panelists on the state listening tour for the Farm Bill
Panelists on the listening tour for the farm bill.

Dean Norton, a farmer and farm consultant from Genesee County who previously was president of the Farm Bureau, said, “We’re talking about a farm bill that’s really not a farm bill, its’s a national security — food security — bill.”

But the two issues are wrapped together, noted several speakers. Mitch Gruber, chief programs officer of Foodlink, the regional food bank, said anyone visiting the Rochester City Public Market on a Saturday can tell how entwined the issues are as people line up every Saturday to exchange their SNAP benefits for tokens they can spend on the market.  According to James Farr, market manager, the market takes in about $1.2 million a year in sales from SNAP benefits.

Earlier Gruber testified that proposed cuts to the food stamp program will hurt the diet of people who use SNAP benefits, and hurt the many farmers who supply fresh produce to Foodlink programs, such as Curbside Market, a farmer’s market on wheels.

“If these programs are cut, how do we say we want low-income people to buy healthy food?” Gruber asked.

Margaret Lapp, senior program coordinator of the Field to Fork Network in Buffalo, said 200 farmers in Western New York participate in the Double Up Food Bucks program in which a SNAP recipient can spend $10 in SNAP benefits at a participating farm market and get a matching $10 to spend on vegetables or fruits grown in New York. That incentive program resulted in $450,000 in sales in a year, and 285,000 pounds of food purchased, Lapp said.

Ball said he has talked with agricultural commissioners across the U.S. who all agree there should be more support in the farm bill, not less.

Several speakers urged more help for independent research, small or medium farms, and people getting into farming at a young age. Organic farmer Elizabeth Henderson said U.S. farmers can’t meet the demand for organic produce and need more help from the farm bill on a par with what regular farming gets. While organic farming accounts for 4 percent of the farm market, she said, organic farmers get just two-tenths of a percent of federal agricultural research money.

Livingston County dairy farmer Jeff Mulligan said more public research is needed in agriculture to keep pace with China.

“That’s part of getting ahead in this world and keeping competitive,” Mulligan said.

Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens, organic grain farmers from Penn Yan, Yates County, came to share the plight of their many  Mennonite farm neighbors.

Klaas Martens told the commissioners that young Mennonite farmers are facing obstacles getting their milk to market, while giant farms keep adding cows. Yet these folks are the ones who populate the volunteer fire and ambulance corps and drive the economy in some rural communities.

The Martens discovered that first hand earlier this fall when the main barn on their farm burned down and about half the firefighters responding were Mennonites. The young Mennonite farmers returned by the dozens later to rebuild the Martens’ barn.

“We need the diversity of farming to keep our communities healthy,” Mary-Howell Martens said.

Ball and the other commissioners intend to summarize comments from the listening tour for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to help inform his  priorities shared with the federal government for allocations outlined in the bill.

Check Out Hunger begins at Wegmans

Starting on Sunday, Oct. 29, Wegmans is offering shoppers the ability to donate to Foodlink, the regional food bank, while paying for their groceries.

Through Dec. 3, shoppers will be able to contribute to the Check Out Hunger campaign at Wegmans cash registers. Shoppers typically add to their grocery bill $2, $3 or $5 designated for a Foodlink donation. Last year the donations made over five weeks added up to more than $680,000.

“Foodlink relies on this campaign, and the support of our community, to implement some of the most essential anti-hunger programs throughout our 10-county service area,” said Foodlink Executive Director Julia Tedesco. “Every little donation helps us take a step closer to ending hunger and building healthier communities.”

Foodlink programs reach approximately 200,000 individuals in the Rochester region, according to the organization.

Fill the Bus food drive begins

Foodlink Inc. has rolled out its annual “Fill the Bus” campaign that aims to put a dent in childhood hunger.

The Fill the Bus food drive, which is organized through a partnership with Wegmans Food Markets Inc., 13WHAM ABC, FOX Rochester and CW Rochester, will run from Sept. 8 through Sept. 23. The drive collects donations for Foodlink’s BackPack Program, which allows food insecure children an opportunity to bring home a bag full of nutritious food over the weekend and during holiday breaks when they no longer have access to school meals.

More than 50,000 children in Foodlink’s 10-county service area are unsure how many meals they will eat on a given weekend, officials noted. Last year, Foodlink worked with more than 80 schools to provide roughly 50,000 bags of food to more than 4,000 children throughout the school year.

“Study after study shows the link between a healthy diet and success in the classroom,” Heather Newton, Foodlink’s director of community engagement, said in a statement. “The BackPack Program helps us improve the health outcomes and educational attainment of children and strengthen our communities, and we’re so grateful for the public’s support.”

This year, Foodlink’s goal is to collect more than 250,000 pounds of food. In four years, the campaign has collected 634,000 pounds of food, including 247,000 pounds last year.

Shoppers can purchase non-perishable items at area Wegmans, as well as pre-packaged bags of food ranging from $3 to $10 at checkout.

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Foodlink creating recipe for jobs

Foodlink Inc. executive director Julia Tedesco with Mitch Gruber, chief programs officer. (Photo by Kate Melton)
Foodlink Inc. executive director Julia Tedesco with Mitch Gruber, chief programs officer. (Photo by Kate Melton)

When Thomas Ferraro founded a food bank in Rochester in the late 1970s, he envisioned an organization that would not only feed Rochester’s hungry but also teach valuable workforce skills and create jobs. He imagined a place that would generate wealth and opportunity and help pull people out of poverty.

He was ahead of his time.

“Early on, Tom Ferraro recognized the opportunity that when you’re running a full-service kitchen and putting out thousands of meals a day that you have an opportunity to train people in that,” said Julia Tedesco, Foodlink Inc.’s executive director.

Four decades later, the nonprofit organization is working with local businesses to initiate a workforce development program.

“We had fits and starts of workforce development programs over the years,” said Tedesco, including a Work Experience Program with RochesterWorks Inc., as well as grants from the U.S. Department of Labor for short-run training programs. “Nothing really comprehensive and nothing that we felt really afforded people a real pathway to sustainable employment.”

Foodlink officials hope to have a culinary training program in place by early next year. The workforce development program would be the third facet of the organization’s competencies.

At its core, Foodlink, founded by Ferraro in 1978, provides emergency food to human service agencies, food pantries, senior centers and daycares in the 10-county Rochester and Finger Lakes region. Last year, Foodlink distributed 17.4 million pounds of food, including 4.9 million pounds of produce.

Secondary to its food distribution, Foodlink provides educational programs and has a farm on Lexington Avenue that is run by refugee families. The organization also runs a Curbside Market, which Tedesco calls a farmer’s market on wheels.

“In that sense, sort of pushing the envelope in terms of food banking,” Tedesco said. “That’s not charitable food distribution; that’s creating access points for individuals to purchase affordable, largely locally grown fruits and vegetables.”

In June, Foodlink opened a modern kitchen at its 28,000-square-foot headquarters on Mount Read Boulevard. The organization received funding for the $4.9 million project from Greater Rochester Health Foundation, Empire State Development Corp. and the Wegmans Family Foundation, among others.

“Our primary goal for the kitchen was to relocate it under one roof and to invest in the infrastructure we needed to expand our services,” Tedesco said. “And we thought … the workforce development, a couple years down the line, once we were up and running in the new kitchen, we would do that.”

But the training initiative gained traction when Wegmans Food Markets Inc. chairman Danny Wegman, a longtime supporter of Foodlink, toured the facility before its opening.

“He really emphasized the need for individuals with middle skills, that middle-skills group in the culinary field and the food industry, and that there was a high demand for it,” Tedesco said. “And he really urged us to think about that workforce development program and to make it more of a priority.”

When Wegman committed to investing in Foodlink’s new kitchen, Tedesco and her team decided they had a one-of-a-kind opportunity with the facility to build the type of culinary and food industry training program that was lacking in the region.

“There are other culinary skills programs out there,” Tedesco acknowledged. “But that’s primarily entry level, minimum wage jobs.”

Training individuals for higher level positions within the food industry quickly became Foodlink’s goal.

“To develop a program where people could gain some skills to really enter at a rung above entry-level jobs and to have a pathway to a living wage career, where there’s some mobility in their career and not just static employment there,” Tedesco explained of the focus.

And the workforce development program does not have to focus solely on culinary jobs, said Mitch Gruber, Foodlink’s chief programs officer.

“We have an opportunity to build a whole host of food industry jobs,” Gruber said. “The food industry is one of the biggest sectors in our region.”

Foodlink has had businesses tour the new kitchen and express an interest in hiring individuals trained there. Gruber noted middle-skill jobs could include food and beverage manufacturing and warehousing, among other things.

“We have not had a single employer in here yet who has said, ‘We’re doing fine on jobs,’” Gruber said. “Everybody needs more middle-skill folks for their businesses.”

Foodlink has applied for a three-year, $3 million grant through the New York Upstate Revitalization Initiative that would allow the organization to develop the training program and put through a small pilot class as early as 2018, Tedesco said.

Foodlink is hoping that with those dollars the program can be offered with a stipend that will help students with transportation and child care.

“One of the asks is to be able to get a 12- to 18-person passenger van so we can do a significant amount of field trips,” Gruber said. “We want all of the folks that are coming through this program to have an opportunity to choose their own career path. So we want to make sure this is a very rich, experiential program as well.”

The workforce development program would take place in 12-week units with 15 to 18 individuals per program, Tedesco said. And, while culinary in nature, the program also would offer some soft skills, including literacy and numeracy, coaching and counseling.

The Foodlink program makes sense, said John Emerson, Wegmans vice president of prepared foods/merchandising, because the organization’s kitchen already is being used for food preparation.

“If you’re operating a culinary program, you can show someone how to butcher a chicken maybe one time or two times, but you can’t just get a bunch of food, make it and throw it away,” Emerson said. “That’s just not sustainable. So if you’re taking a culinary program, how do you get practice?”

For two years, Emerson was part of a team working with area economic development agencies that discussed ways to develop middle skills within the community. They defined middle skills as something that does not require more than a year or two of college or trade school.

Emerson and others approached Foodlink with an idea for training in the organization’s kitchen, which produces 4,000 meals a day.

“We went to them and challenged them to do more in the way of career development,” Emerson recalled. “They have 4,000 meals a day that they produce right now. That represented 4,000 meals a day of practice for people to learn, which the colleges don’t have.”

Emerson said officials from Barilla America Inc., Palmer Food Services Inc. and others have encouraged and backed the project and have committed to hiring students who have completed the workforce development program.


“Because we need to find more qualified people,” Emerson said. “This is a big industry. This is a breadbasket here in the Rochester/Finger Lakes area. We’ve got wine, micro-breweries, so much farming and agriculture. This should be like the Napa Valley of the East. Food should be the thing that nourishes our whole community in so many ways.”

To that end, Wegmans has loaned Foodlink one of its operations managers to help work on developing the program and one of Wegmans’ regional executive chefs is helping with the curriculum, Emerson said.

“So our role right now is cheerleaders, supporters, advisers, mentors and ultimately the customer,” Emerson said. “In the end we’ll hire people out of these programs. And we need more and more employers to step up and be willing to support this cause.”

For Foodlink, the workforce development program is mission aligned, Tedesco said, because the agency has a built-in demand for help preparing meals and leveraging food in a multitude of ways to build the regional economy.

“Obviously the core of our mission is to end hunger, and if you can train people and get them into that sustainable, living-wage job, then that’s what will ultimately shorten the emergency food lines,” Tedesco said.

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