In a food emergency, Kingston community comes to the rescue

Susan Hereth prepares a delivery. (photo by Lynn Woods)

With Kingston’s stores and businesses mostly closed and its streets eerily quiet, there’s a bustle of activity at People’s Place, the YMCA of Ulster County, Catholic Charities, and other locations around the city. The demand on the city’s food pantries has never been greater. To serve households under quarantine, dozens of volunteers are delivering the food, packing cars with prepared meals and carefully organized bags of groceries.

With schools closed, the need to feed children, many of whom rely on the school district’s program of free or reduced-priced lunch, has also grown exponentially. Since March 15, People’s Place has served 303,000 meals via groceries. Seventy-five percent of this is related to the KEFC and Ulster County’s Covid-19 hotlines.

The Kingston school district is distributing free breakfasts and lunches on a timetable from 10 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. at its elementary schools, middle school and other locations. People’s Place is delivering supplementary bags full of snacks and breakfast and lunch food for kids.

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The numbers are astounding: a 430 percent increase in demand at People’s Place compared to a year ago, according to executive director Christine Hein. “We’re seeing people we never saw before,” she said. “Approximately 700 families are new. And families who we saw in 2015 and 2016 are coming back.” The clientele has “no average face,” she said. “It’s anybody. It’s across the board. People who were totally fine now need food.”

As well as delivering food to hundreds of households Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., People’s Place also is doing curbside delivery at its food pantry (people over 70 who drive to its location at 70 St. James can get the food delivered to their car by a volunteer). The Community Café, at 17 St. James St., is open for takeout continental breakfast and sandwiches from 8:30 a.m. to I p.m. on weekdays. The bulk of the food, ordered twice a month from the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York, is supplemented by donations from local supermarkets, businesses and “those beautiful citizens who call up and ask what are we short in and then drop off the item,” according to Hein.

The community joins in

The City of Kingston has provided $60,000 in funding to People’s Place, Family of Woodstock and the Kingston Emergency Food Collaborative (KEFC), a partnership between the city and 15 local organizations that has been delivering food to households in the school district that make requests on a city emergency food hotline. The first delivery occurred on March 18, when Susan Hereth, farm educator at the YMCA, joined forces with Callie Jane, founder and executive director at RiseUp Kingston (both organizations belong to the collaborative), and delivered 175 meals from the Y parking lot. The meals were sourced from the Everette Hodge Community Center and Diamond Mills Hotel, in Saugerties.

As of last Thursday, the number had skyrocketed to 3000. A third of those meals were provided by Project Resilience, an emergency county-funded program in which people enroll online for meals prepared by local restaurants. These have been a major component of the Kingston food deliveries. Five days a week, from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., three revolving teams of ten volunteers have been delivering the meals from the Y to thousands of local households.

Besides providing tents, cooler trailers and funding for electrical and operational costs, the City of Kingston has also been contributing manpower, with city employees answering the hotline, preparing and delivering meals, and providing the logistics on both the delivery systems and technology. “From our director of health and wellness to our IT department and staff from nearly every department, I’ve been so proud of city employees who had dedicated themselves to helping their community in so many ways during this difficult time,” noted mayor Steve Noble in an email.

The Y distribution center will be closed down on May 15 due to the discontinuance of Project Resilience’s program of prepared meals. Volunteers were inserting flyers listing other food resources in their deliveries.

Amanda LaValle of the county’s Department of Environment wrote in an email that Project Resilience was organized to help people impacted by the virus as well as support local restaurants when they otherwise would lose their business. She noted that the project was discontinued because “other organizations [are helping to] fund produce and farm product” and “we are all generally anticipating that there will be USDA and state funding towards these efforts in the near future.” Plus, “we see more willingness of people to support their local eateries (there is a Facebook group called Ulster Eateries United} and … in many cases the more traditional social safety net has also ‘caught up’ to the crisis.”

Lavalle noted that the county would be providing supplemental funding for groceries distributed in Kingston through People’s Place as well as Community Action, located at 17 Lindsley Avenue, and Catholic Charities, located at 6 Adams Street, which have been ramping up their deliveries to make up for the shortfall. People with a need for food can call the Ulster County Covid hotline and be directed to one of these resources. The county is considering continuing a more limited prepared meal program in the future.

The distribution system

The challenge has not only been the dramatically increased demand but also the need to deliver food due to the quarantine. When the pandemic hit, Katrina Light, manager of the Hudson Valley Farm Hub, took on the new title of community food program manager working with the Kingston Emergency Food Collaborative. She said the initiative was entirely grass-roots, with “no hierarchy; whoever wanted to jump in, did and we all found our niche.”

Procurement, communications and distribution were quickly formed. Light, who is part of the distribution effort, said the number of families receiving prepared food was 595; those getting groceries were 498. “The first week the city shut down, People’s Place was delivering food to 25 families a day; now we’re up to 90, just for deliveries,” Light said. The deliveries are once a week per family (up from twice a month pre-virus).

Besides People’s Place, as noted deliveries are being made from Community Action on Friday and starting this week, they’ll begin from the Catholic Charities location on Wednesday. “We hit capacity at People’s Place, which is why we opened Community Action and are activating Catholic Charities,” Light said.

When there are scarcities of certain items — Hein at People’s Place makes sure there are always ingredients for a full meal and fresh produce and “cold” items, such as meat and dairy — Light said the Hudson Valley Farm Hub and Community Action’s purchases from local farms help fill in the gap.

Light noted the KEFC was an emergency response. “We jumped into fill the gap. Some people have had meals every day for eight weeks, and now maybe their checks are coming in, or they’re going back to work,” she said. But there’s no doubt many in the community “are still experiencing food insecurity. If you need food we’ll give you food, but it’s not a long-term model,” she added. “It’s been possible because our partners, People’s Place, the Hodge Center” — which delivers food to people living in motels — “and the Salvation Army have been doing this for a long time. These are the organizations we need to be supporting.”

The food pantries themselves have been negatively impacted by having to close their own facilities. The economic engine of People’s Place was its thrift store. Hein said the organization also had to cancel its fundraisers; a telethon it recently held instead raised half of what it would raise from a fundraiser event. Even so, especially with the end of Project Resilience’s prepared food deliveries, “we’re planning for an increase. More people will be coming here.”

Imaginative sourcing

Since early April, another organization, Ulster Immigrant Defense Network (UIDN) https://ulsterimmigrantdefensenetwork.org, has been meeting the needs of the most vulnerable members of the community, undocumented immigrants. On Wednesday afternoons, some 30 volunteers deliver groceries to 150 families — the number goes up every week — most of whom live in Kingston and the remainder in Saugerties. Penny Coleman, a member of UIDN, said, “these people have considerable hunger challenges because they are underemployed and victims of ICE raids since Trump was elected. This will be the community that comes back the slowest, and their needs will be ongoing.”

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Building on the work of Leslie Gallagher and Kim Touchette, who started a shop-and-drop program which pairs up community members with families who do their shopping for them, Coleman has been sourcing the groceries from Rondout Valley Food Pantry. She has been searching for other providers (she also buys the three staples of this community, corn flower, rice and beans, on twice-weekly runs to Sam’s Club).  And individuals have been helping out: “Ric Orlando [former executive chef and owner of New World Home Cooking] is a local hero. He lives in Albany and packed his truck and gave us everything he had in his pantry when he heard of our need.”

Other non-profits help out

Other organizations have been providing assistance behind the scenes. Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley has provided grants of $2000 to $5000 to local organizations serving migrant and other underserved communities as well as a grant to United Way, according to Kevin Quilty, vice president of Community Foundations, Ulster County. “Checks have gone directly to those organizations. There are no strings attached. All we ask at the end of day is if you have a story you’d like to share with us, we’d love to hear it.”

Stacey Rein, president and CEO of United Way of Ulster County, said her organization has an emergency and homelessness prevention fund, which since the advent of the pandemic has been prioritizing “those people who aren’t eligible for unemployment and won’t get stimulus money in the near future.” An example is a woman recently released from prison who’d gotten a job in the hospitality industry in January and found an apartment but then got laid off and didn’t qualify for unemployment. United Way helped with her rental payment. A lot of United Way’s recipients are “single moms, people with mental health issues, families in which the kids are now home and they need help with electricity and heat, as well as farm workers, who have no income coming in and are terrified,” said Rein.

City government is helping out in myriad other ways, besides organizing food assistance and deliveries. According to mayor Noble, the Kingston Water Department is waiving bill penalties through May 1. The Office of Community Development has secured approximately $440,000 in CDBG Disaster Recovery Funds to help those most in need. The city assessor has cancelled planned reassessments for the time being.  The Kingston Local Development Corp. (KLDC) offers very low-interest microloans of up to $7500, offered on a first-come, first-served basis. According to KLDC executive director Amanda Bruck, more than 20 businesses have inquired about the loans, including tech companies, restaurants, and artisan businesses.

The local community has stepped up. In his daily press conference, a few days ago governor Andrew Cuomo said no one in the state would go hungry. That could be said for any person in Kingston. Even as the future is uncertain, dedicated workers are figuring out how to meet the need.