It may be no coincidence that Dutchess Outreach, an organization whose mission it is to provide support for needy citizens in the greater Poughkeepsie community and beyond, got its start 40-plus years ago at the height of communal idealism and spiritual altruism. Those radical Boomers instigated all manner of social activism under the banner of peace, love and you-know-what. So what happens when they (I should say we) begin to “age out” of active volunteerism? Are younger generations picking up the slack and stepping in to fill the need?
“Most of our volunteers are either from the Baby Boomer generation, or are related to or in the families of, or are driven in some way through leadership from that generation, whether it’s on the job, in school, in clubs or in scouting,” says Brian Riddell, executive director of Dutchess Outreach. “But I think we’re seeing a fairly decent turnover in younger people coming in to volunteer for our programs – our food pantry and our emergency meal service programs – particularly college-age people who are not doing it for credit, but for altruistic reasons.”
He comments on how the younger generation is concerned with sustainability and with not being wasteful. “And that’s translating into efforts to try to reduce the amount of food waste, and get it into programs like ours. At a group called Rescuing Leftover Cuisine, a New York City-based organization that has a branch at Vassar College, a young woman is spearheading that movement here in the Valley.” Asked how leftover food is sourced, Riddell says, “It comes from across the spectrum. They pick up food for us from events – for example, from the ALS Walk on the Walkway. We have a connection now from Hannaford’s; they have also made connections with local farms, and they’ve brought us fresh produce. It’s a highly organized effort, but there are others on a smaller scale that are going on, too.”
In fact, the scope of organized assistance provided by Dutchess Outreach is wide, with programs such as the recent coat drive to collect and distribute 6,000 warm coats to people who don’t have the wherewithal to go out and buy new winter garments each fall. These get distributed to six different sites throughout the county. “We have locations in Beacon (two stops), Hyde Park, Pleasant Valley, Millerton, Wappingers; we really expanded this year. Each of these communities has pockets of poverty.” Lunches and dinners are served daily at the Lunch Box, where up to 220,000 meals per year are provided for individuals and families, including HIV/AIDS patients. The Plenty Fresh Market is a mobile unit that supplies fresh vegetables and fruit to areas designated as “food deserts.” A Community Food Hub gleans fresh local produce, and a Micro-Farm operation grows produce in the heart of the City of Poughkeepsie.
Perhaps most importantly, the organization promotes community awareness of hunger and other social problems, advocates on behalf of disadvantaged folks requiring various emergency services and encourages improvements in the response that the community is capable of generating to meet human needs. “Even the EPA [US Environmental Protection Agency] has moved giving food to the hungry higher up their list of priorities,” says Riddell. “But getting food from the waste stream into food programs to feed people has its limitations. People are getting rid of food they don’t want: surplus that is destined to go to the dumpster. Making sure you get the quality food for your program is a lot of work. Places like the Poughkeepsie Farm Project and the Bruderhof are now doing crop planning for the purpose of feeding the hungry, too. It would be nice to get a decent supermarket in town; there has been talk about getting one down at the lower end of town.
“We had a lot of success with the mobile market this first year, especially among senior citizens. We made sure people were able to use their coupons from the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program. People on WIC [the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children] also have those kinds of coupons. We maximized that. There is no Poughkeepsie farmers’ market right now other than the mobile market. Working with the farmers as we do, we could get people real value for their dollars. We see a lot of traffic for our food programs from the surrounding locations.”
When asked what is needed ongoingly, not just during the holidays, Riddell says, “Right now we need to look at making the mobile market more sustainable; we need to develop a stronger volunteer effort around that. For example, the Lunch Box, where we serve 220 lunches and 200 dinners a day, has an organized volunteer effort of ten or 12 people every day. We need to focus energy on the mobile market, working on the farms and getting the foods to market. Our other programs are pretty well-covered – not to say we wouldn’t entertain anyone who wanted to volunteer.
“In terms of resources, we’ve done a lot to expand our capacity to handle fresh food – freezer and cooler space – that effort at the Pantry also requires a bit of a step-up in manpower and womanpower. If we talk about in-kind resources, the things that are most costly are non-food items for the food service programs. It’s the consumables that are hitting the budget now: gloves, nets, soap, aprons, napkins, paper towels. All of that becomes expensive, and people don’t think about donating these. And the gas to run the mobile market; I’ve been trying to negotiate with the county to at least get county prices on gas.
“You never can project how much these things are going to cost when you plan your year. On our website we have instructions on how to conduct a food drive and the items we need most: protein items like peanut butter and tunafish and baked beans, dried milk, cereal, which is a fairly expensive item. We could get a donation of 6,000 items from a food drive, and if there are 100 cans of fruit, that’s a lot. So canned fruit and canned soup are always needed. The world has way too much bread. Every supermarket has a bakery. People go to their market and bring us the day-old bread, but it reaches a point where…
“But there’s never enough pasta! We run out of that occasionally also. And non-food items: personal hygiene items, shampoo, combs, shaving stuff, feminine hygiene items, baby formula – when you think of someone who can’t breastfeed, and they don’t have enough formula for their baby – it’s a sad narrative in this country that somebody has to depend on a really small organization like ours for these necessities. It blows my mind.”
Given that stark realization, I asked Riddell how he has managed to do this work for more than two decades. He says, “I’m sustained by the energy of the people who connect to Dutchess Outreach. Not everybody is empathetic or sympathetic, but those who are bring tremendous energy and joy to the work. I feed off of that: meeting people who are helping us, listening to people who want to help us. The occasional successes along the way are nice, a project that turns out the way you had planned. That gives me great satisfaction. Right now it’s exciting to bring younger people into the projects and listen to their perspectives and their goals. I’m lucky to have a number of people 30 or so years younger than I am who are bringing forth that spirit, and they’re not looking at it as charity. They’re looking at it as food-as-a-human-right standpoint, which to me is very exciting.
“It’s probably something I’ve believed in all along, but not espoused because we have a lot of conservative people that believe charity is the answer, and I have to work with that. I’ve always walked the line between my human rights agenda and the charity agenda; I kind of work both sides of the aisle, so to speak. Charity is a step along the way, but hopefully with greater enlightenment we can figure out how everybody can eat. Food is like air. Take a deep breath and let it out slowly. It feels great. Now take a quarter of a breath – one out of four people aren’t getting enough food in Poughkeepsie – and how does that feel? It’s not whether you deserve it. It’s not whether you’ve worked hard to get it. Everybody needs to eat, and we all need to help feed each other.”
Dutchess Outreach and the Lunch Box are located at 29 North Hamilton Street in Poughkeepsie. If you or a loved one is in need of these services, please contact Dutchess Outreach at (845) 454-3792 or at www.dutchessoutreach.org. For information about contributing to Rescuing Leftover Cuisine, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.facebook.com/rescuingleftovercuisine.