Foodlink’s community farm receives state funding for education center

Foodlink’s Lexington Avenue Community Farm helps support families as well as the organization’s programs. (Photo provided)

Foodlink Inc. has received $150,000 from New York State to help with construction of an education center at the Lexington Avenue Community Farm.

Located at 617 Lexington Ave., between the Edgerton and Lyell-Otis neighborhoods, the farm is a 1.33-acre urban agriculture campus featuring a community garden, commercial growing operations and public pocket park.

The funding was secured through the New York State Assembly’s State and Municipal Facilities Program grants.

“Urban farms and community gardens are a critical way of addressing food deserts and accessibility issues for our city families, while simultaneously building community in our neighborhoods,” Assemblymember Sarah Clark (D-Irondequoit) said in a news release. “As one of the largest urban agricultural sites in the region, Foodlink’s Lexington Avenue Community Farm is a NW neighborhood treasure, and I am proud to provide support from the state for its expansion.

“What better way to ensure growth and engagement for generations to come than by building an education center to provide learning opportunities and training programs for everyone.”

The Lexington Avenue Community Farm was founded in 2011 and provides space for 65 families to grow approximately 6,000 pounds of food for their households each year, Foodlink says. Another 2,000 pounds of food grown at the farm supports Foodlink’s Curbside Market, Community Kitchen and Nutrition Education programs each year.

“This funding marks a critical step forward for our Foodlink Community Farm as we increase our footprint on Lexington Avenue and bolster our commitment to urban agriculture and community health education,” said Julia Tedesco, president & CEO of Foodlink. “Purchasing and renovating the building adjacent to our farm provides us with much-needed infrastructure improvements to expand programming, and we’re eager to work alongside community members to help design and define this new space.”

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Council of Agency Executives names award recipients

The Council of Agency Executives has named three award recipients for its annual Community Partner Awards and Member of Distinction Award.

Monroe County Commissioner of Public Health Michael Mendoza and Foodlink Inc. President and CEO Julia Tedesco each will receive the Community Partner Award for their “unwavering efforts to the community during the COVID pandemic.”

This year’s Member of Distinction will be presented to Seanelle Hawkins, president and CEO of the Urban League of Rochester for the organization’s Interrupt Racism project.

The awards will be presented at the council’s annual meeting and awards breakfast slated for Oct. 26 at Irondequoit Country Club. Common Ground Health CEO Wade Norwood is the keynote speaker for the event.

The Council of Agency Executives is an association of 140 nonprofit organizations in the Greater Rochester area that offers programs for executive directors and agency staff.

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Funding for Foodlink expansion passes U.S. House

The recently passed House appropriations bill has set aside $750,000 for Rochester’s Foodlink Inc. to help the nonprofit cover the costs of a much-needed refrigerator expansion, Rep. Joe Morelle said on Wednesday. The bill still needs to be passed by the U.S. Senate.

“The COVID-19 pandemic forced too many Monroe County residents into food insecurity, leaving them without basic access to healthy food options,” Morelle (D-Irondequoit) said in a statement. “As we continue to combat this crisis, we must ensure families are able to provide for their children and put food on their tables. That is why I was proud to help secure funding in the House appropriations bill to allow Foodlink to better serve our community and deliver more healthy meals to families who need them.”

Morelle joined Foodlink Wednesday to recognize Hunger Action Month, which takes place each September to raise awareness of the hunger issues families in our community and nationwide face.

The refrigerator expansion will allow Foodlink to stock more fresh produce and better meet the growing needs of the local community, especially during the pandemic, officials said.

“Hunger Action Month offers a critical opportunity to bring attention to the impact that poverty and food insecurity has on our communities, and the reality that thousands of households in our region are forced to make impossible choices between paying for food and other basic needs,” said Foodlink President and CEO Julia Tedesco. “We are grateful that Congressman Morelle understands the severity of this issue, and for his advocacy and support on the federal level.”

Because of the pandemic, Foodlink has helped serve an unprecedented number of food-insecure families in our region, the effects of which are ultimately felt on our children’s dinner plate, officials noted. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the organization distributed 25 percent more food last year than the year prior, which already was a record-setting year.

The $750,000 award is being made available as part of the Community Funding Project program, which Congress is implementing for the first time this year. Through this program, members of Congress are able to provide direct investments to areas of their communities that need it most. The funding was recently passed in the House of Representatives appropriations bill and will now be considered by the U.S. Senate.

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Pay-what-you-can cafe opens in Bausch & Lomb building

Foodlink Inc. has opened a new community café inside the Central Library’s Bausch & Lomb building downtown.

The café is a pay-what-you-can eatery at which guests can pay the suggested price on the menu or pay what they are able. Guests also can choose to pay it forward to help cover the cost for those who can’t, as well as to support Foodlink’s mission.

“We launched this café as an extension of our most transformative career empowerment initiative, the Foodlink Career Fellowship,” said Foodlink President and CEO Julia Tedesco in a statement. “It will provide valuable training opportunities for our Fellows, fresh, nutritious lunch options downtown and a way for the whole community to learn more about Foodlink and our Community Kitchen.”

The café offers a new retail experience for apprentices who are enrolled in the Career Fellowship, a one-of-a-kind culinary training program. The seven members of the current Fellowship class primarily will be responsible for preparing the food and greeting and serving customers.

“The staff, patrons and neighbors of the Central Library are thrilled to have the café space open again and so excited to welcome Foodlink and their staff to the building,” said Library Director Patty Uttaro. “We are especially thankful for Foodlink’s innovative approach to this project which not only provides affordable nourishment to all but also provides valuable customer-facing experience for the staff behind the counter. We look forward to seeing the ‘pay what you can/pay it forward’ model succeed.”

The space once was occupied by Starry Nites, Tim Horton’s and Simply Crepes and now will offer a lunch menu created by Foodlink Executive Chef Casey Holenbeck that features sandwiches, soups, salads and sides. Other local menu items will include Fuego coffee, Amazing Grains bread, New York Chips, FIZ soda and Red Jacket Orchards juice.

Foodlink’s mission is to leverage the power of food to end hunger and build healthier communities. Its food-banking operations serve thousands of individuals annually through a 10-county service area.

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Foodlink to invest $1 million in food pantries, shelters

Foodlink on Wednesday said it will phase out its drive-thru food distribution events in Monroe County next month while expanding its food-banking partnerships and capacity during the summer months.

To better support food-insecure households during the transition period, Foodlink has committed an additional $1 million in funding to its network of food pantries, community meal programs and shelters. Officials said generous public support in the last year allowed the nonprofit organization to allocate the additional funds to its network.

Julia Tedesco
Julia Tedesco

“Our drive-through food distribution model was a necessary and innovative emergency stopgap measure that has been central to Foodlink’s pandemic response,” said Foodlink President and CEO Julia Tedesco. “We’ve made the decision to pivot from this model and invest more resources in the network of community-based nonprofits that Foodlink has partnered with for decades to serve those in need. This network is not only equipped to respond to the food needs of clients across our area, but also to connect them to other critical social services and resources.”

Foodlink has coordinated more than 600 distributions in the last 400 days that have served roughly 180,000 households. Initial projections from Feeding America showed a rise in food insecurity by 45 percent in Foodlink’s service area, officials noted. The nation’s largest anti-hunger organization recently revised those metrics based on updated employment data, and now estimate the rise in food insecurity locally is closer to 25 percent.

“Although the outlook is improving for some, we know there’s still a significant need in our communities and we remain committed to helping people put food on the table every day while continuing to develop strategies that address the root causes of chronic food insecurity and poverty,” Tedesco said.

Foodlink plans to add members to its network in the coming months and continue its drive-thru distributions in rural areas within the 10 counties it serves. Community members can find more than 250 food access points by going to the “Find Food” map on Foodlink’s newly redesigned website, or by calling 211/Life Line.

“We want to thank 211 and the many community partners across Monroe County who stepped up to host our food distributions with us in the past 14 months – and the many volunteers who served our neighbors with dignity and respect during this challenging time,” Tedesco said.

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Foodlink receives grant from Sands Family Foundation

Foodlink Inc. has been awarded a multi-year grant from the Sands Family Foundation Generation 3 Philanthropy Project (G3PP) to support its Curbside Market, a mobile farmers market that visits and distributes food to underserved communities across the Rochester region.

The grant will support key staffing needs for the market and will allow for the addition of a new vehicle to the Curbside Market fleet. The grant amount was not disclosed.

Julia Tedesco
Julia Tedesco

“The Sands Family Foundation has shown repeatedly that it truly cares about the health of our region, particularly in low-income communities where diet-related illnesses are most prevalent,” said Foodlink President and CEO Julia Tedesco. “The Curbside Market continues to evolve to meet the needs of Rochester-area residents seeking fresh, affordable foods and will be critical to rebuilding community health as our area recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The Curbside Market was launched in 2013 and primarily sells fresh fruits and vegetables. It strives to make the healthy choice the easy choice for thousands of customers in the Rochester region.

Although it began with one vehicle and seasonal routes in the city of Rochester, the market now operates year-round with multiple routes in Rochester, Monroe County and five other counties in Foodlink’s service area, officials noted.

“As our grandfather, Marvin, would say, ‘While we can’t save the world, we can make a difference in our community,’” said G3PP Co-Chair Lauren Sands.

Customers who use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits can purchase twice as much produce through the Double Up Food Bucks incentive program. Later this year, Foodlink hopes to diversify its inventory once it is approved to sell items for another federal nutrition program, Women, Infants & Children (WIC).

This latest grant is the second that Sands Family Foundation G3PP has awarded to Foodlink’s Curbside Market. A prior grant in 2018-19 allowed the market to add critical staff and expand its operating hours to evenings and weekends.

“Our family is proud to support Foodlink’s efforts to meet our community’s need for fresh, affordable foods with its Curbside Market,” said G3PP Co-Chair Ashly Sands-O’Winter.

The Curbside Market temporarily had to suspend its operations in mid-March because of COVID-19. The market reopened with a limited schedule in July.

“We look forward to learning with our partners and customers about how to continue to best serve them, and will begin to ramp up our schedule when it is safe and appropriate to do so,” Tedesco said.

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Wegmans and Foodlink: A partnership to fight hunger


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.

Danny Wegman speaks at Foodlink’s ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2017, celebrating the expansion and relocation of the Foodlink Community Kitchen. (Matt Wittmeyer/Foodlink)
Danny Wegman speaks at Foodlink’s ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2017, celebrating the expansion and relocation of the Foodlink Community Kitchen. (Matt Wittmeyer/Foodlink)

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.

Executive Chef Casey Holenbeck, center, leads a lesson on knife skills with the inaugural class of the Foodlink Career Fellowship. (Photo courtesy Foodlink)
Executive Chef Casey Holenbeck, center, leads a lesson on knife skills with the inaugural class of the Foodlink Career Fellowship. (Photo courtesy Foodlink)

“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.

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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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