According to the World Bank’s Poverty and Shared Prosperity Report 2020, Covid-19 is likely to push between 88 and 115 million people into extreme poverty worldwide. Between May and October of this year, despite the federal aid provided under the Cares Act, more than eight million Americans slipped into poverty, says a study conducted by Columbia University. Food insecurity is rising rapidly, and local food pantries are hard-pressed to keep up with growing demand – much of it from people who never imagined themselves needing charity.
When the pandemic struck, the Reverend Doctor Allison Moore had just been installed as pastor at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in New Paltz. She wanted to help her parishioners to weather the crisis, but had barely gotten to know her new neighbors, and faced the same constraints against public gatherings that have affected us all in 2020.
So Reverend Moore began communicating with some of her peers in the local faith community, in search of ways to provide meaningful and needed services – such as feeding the hungry. Gathering on the church porch, she brainstormed with Pastor Jen Berry of the New Paltz Methodist Church, Pastor Tobias Anderson of Redeemer Lutheran Church and Diana Smith, who heads the Student Christian Center at SUNY New Paltz.
“Diana said that the New Paltz Recycling Center has food. I know that doesn’t sound very appetizing,” Moore jokes. “But local farmers put their excess food in this food locker, and the locker was getting full.”
The ministers discussed the prospects of obtaining grant funding to set up “blessing boxes with little refrigerators inside,” but then turned to thinking about less elaborate short-term solutions to the immediate need they saw growing in the community. “We asked ourselves, ‘Can we just start giving away free food?’ So we did.”
Thus was the Free Fresh Food initiative born. Noting that Family of New Paltz distributes donated food Monday through Friday, and not wishing to duplicate the efforts of other charitable programs, the group decided to pick up the torch on weekends. “Since we represented four groups, we divided up four of the five Sundays in a month. We rotate the fifth Sunday.”
Several volunteers from their respective congregations stepped up, some offering to collect the food from donors and others to distribute it for free at booths set up under tents in front of the designated church for two hours each Sunday afternoon. One volunteer “goes to Tops and Bread Alone and The Bakery and gets all sorts of day-old bakery goods,” Moore reports. “Whoever has something to give away, we bring it to the table.”
Seasonal produce is supplied mainly by UlsterCorps’ Glean Team, a collaborative effort with the Rondout Valley Growers’ Association’s Farm to Food Pantry Program and Family of Woodstock; but local farms and orchards also donate crates of food directly. “We had apples for a while, and broccoli. Right now, it’s mostly potatoes, parsnips and carrots.”
When the project launched in October, attendance was sparse. “We had two people the first Sunday, the next week three people. Once we were setting up on Main Street, we started getting eight, ten, as many as 16 people. Some are just walk-by.” As word got around, the church volunteers began to get to know several regulars. “We have two mother-and-child units that come. It looks like they’re supplementing whatever other food they have.”
Some repeat visitors seem mainly to be seeking “a little bit of community,” Moore observes. “There are a couple of people who’ve been around town for a long time, but they’re lonely. They come just to talk. One told me they really missed the Methodist dinner on Thanksgiving, which didn’t happen this year…That’s the reality of COVID.”
The pop-up booths are “outdoors and it’s safe,” she says. Hand sanitizer is provided at the tables. Users of the service are expected to wear masks, and urged to bring their own shopping bags if possible, although Ulster Savings Bank has donated some to the effort.
Weather and surplus food supplies permitting, the Free Fresh Food project is planned to continue “for the foreseeable future,” according to Reverend Moore. Anyone is eligible, “no questions asked.” Giveaways happen from 1 to 3 p.m. at Redeemer Lutheran Church at 90 Route 32 South on the first and second Sundays of the month, at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church at 163 Main Street on the third Sunday and at the United Methodist Church at 1 Grove Street on the fourth Sunday.
Prospective volunteers, or farms, groceries or restaurants with extra food to give away, are welcome to contact the pastors of any of the three involved churches: (845) 255-0051 for Redeemer Lutheran, 255-5098 for St. Andrew’s or 255-5210 for United Methodist. “It’s definitely informal and pop-up and not too labor-intensive,” Moore promises.