It was one of the colder days during the unusually warm week between Christmas and New Year’s when a handful of volunteers found their way to the Queens Galley in Kingston to help serve dinner. While Kim Prottas, director of Culinary Operations, tended her huge, bubbling pot of jambalaya, she put the new volunteers, who ranged in age from 11-58, to work cleaning and organizing the big produce refrigerator and sorting boxes of onions and potatoes, many of which were too far past their prime to be useful. Prottas explained that, because other food pantries and kitchens were closed that week, Queens Galley was getting a lot of extra donations. It was hard to keep up and not all of it was usable.
Minutes before 5 o’clock, the room full of large and small tables sat expectantly, butter and bread at their centers, paper napkins and silverware at each place. When the doors officially opened for dinner, it didn’t take long before nearly every seat was filled by families with children, couples and people who came in alone, many of whom knew where they wanted to sit and with whom. The volunteers sprang into action. Earlier, Prottas had instructed them in how to serve the meal — salad first, followed by the main course and dessert — and then bus the tables, restaurant-style, so not only did that night’s 100-plus clients receive a warm meal, they were served a dose of dignity along with it.
Queens Galley is the only soup kitchen in Ulster County where anyone can get three meals a day, seven days a week. Because it doesn’t require its clients to demonstrate proof of poverty, it doesn’t receive any government funding, relying instead on donations from local and community member’s businesses. More than half of the people Queens Galley serves depend on it as their sole source of nutrition.
With a small paid staff, it also depends on volunteers to help prepare and serve meals, clean up, and keep the kitchen and dining room organized. Those volunteers are plentiful during the Thanksgiving and Christmas season and, according to Diane Reeder, president and CEO, during Martin Luther King Day, which is rapidly becoming one of the most popular days of service.
But during the rest of the year, it’s catch as catch can.
“We’re not in a position to make demands,” said Felice Castellano, assistant director, “and we’re often short-staffed. We try to get people to commit to a schedule, but there’s always an element of insecurity.”
“It’s particularly difficult to find volunteers who are willing to get up early and come help with breakfast,” she continued, “and in August the number of people available to help also falls off.”
The food pantry at the Family of Woodstock in New Paltz struggles with similar issues — help coming in waves and a chronic shortage of volunteers in the dead of winter and the heat of summer.
“A couple of weeks ago, we were in really bad shape, because after the holidays, fewer people come out,” explained Kathy Cartagena, program director. “After we put out a call on Facebook, ShopRite organized a pre-superbowl event which raised two truck loads of food and $700 in gift cards, and that was great.”
Su Marcy, vice president, United Way of Ulster County, described the Happy to Help food pantry at the St. James Methodist Church in Kingston. “When it opened in 2007, three people came. Last December, in one week it provided 166 people with three days worth of food.”
Food pantries and soup kitchens are ramping up production as a response, in part, to increasing requests from working people whose paychecks cannot keep up with the rising cost of life’s basic necessities. And as those numbers grow, so does the need for volunteers to help out with a whole range of the food distribution cycle. At Family, this includes unloading deliveries from the Food Bank of the Hudson Valley, which distributed 10 million pounds of food last year, as well as carting flattened cardboard boxes to the recycling center.
Connecting volunteers with need has been the mission of UlsterCorps, a clearinghouse for community service opportunities in Ulster Country since 2009 (www.ulstercorps.org). The website makes it easy for individuals and groups to find ways to contribute an hour or a day to any one of dozens of Ulster County agencies that provide food, as well as clothing, shelter, emergency services, literacy training, child and elder care, or animal welfare. UlsterCorps also spearheads a coalition of local workers and volunteers from community gardens and farms, gleaners, processors, storage facilities, food pantries and soup kitchens and, in collaboration with students from the Ulster County BOCES New Visions Health Career Explorations, is developing a comprehensive “blueprint” to make sources of nutritious food more accessible to those who need it.
“Our goal, in partnership with agencies and county government, is to make the most of our existing resources and improve people’s access to healthy food,” said Rik Flynn, president, UlsterCorps. “There are many ways to help solve the problem of hunger and food insecurity in Ulster County and we welcome assistance from anyone who wants to make a difference.”
To find out what you can do, visit UlsterCorps at www.ulstercorps.org or call (845) 481-4331.