Rondout Valley growers aid food pantries
KINGSTON — At this time last year, the Queen’s Galley was out of food and money, but this year the soup kitchen is just out of money.
Executive Director Diane Reeder attributes the influx of one of the nonprofit’s two key resources to the latest evolution of the Fall Field Gleaning for the Hungry program, which was developed by the Rondout Valley Growers Association and the Ulster County Environmental Management Council.
Prior to this year, farmers donated blemished produce in one lump sum at the end of each summer — “typically after the first frost,” said Fabia Wargin, the Rondout Valley Growers Association’s food-to-pantry coordinator.
She estimates that 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of produce was donated through this method in 2007. In 2008, the group collected more than 3,000 pounds of produce.
This summer, a five-week internship program gave the program more structure and consistency, said Wargin. Thanks to a pair of interns, the Rondout Valley Growers Association was able to gather, inventory, and organize donations twice weekly from Gill Farms and Davenport Farms, both in Stone Ridge, as well as Saunderskill Farms in Accord.
Family of Woodstock and Frank Mazzaro, the head of the Heart of Catskills Chamber of Commerce, distributed the food.
The program has gave food pantries and soup kitchens around the region a steady supply of food, and as the first internships ended last week, Reeder described the program as already “indispensable.”
Michael Berg, the executive director of Family of Woodstock, said the program has helped food pantries and soup kitchens around the county keep their shelves stocked in a year when the state of the economy has driven local demand up 40 percent. “Survival is a much bigger issue for a bigger number of families,” he said.
Besides collecting blemished produce, Wargin said the regular collection allows farmers to send produce that is just past its sell-by date but still edible to regional food pantries as well. The interns reap quantities like greens, tomatoes, apples, egg plant, squash, and peppers, Wargins said.
Reeder, whose nonprofit receives about half of the donated food, said that because of local farmers’ generosity, her Washington Avenue soup kitchen’s 9,500 monthly meals have been high-quality and healthy.
Recent menu items at the Queen’s Galley have included pasta primavera, vegetarian lasagna, and ratatouille, said Reeder, who quipped that she has been eating better at work than at home.
Berg said a number of food pantries around the county already have arrangements to gather donations from local farmers, but the Rondout Valley Growers Association’s gleaning provides a more centralized way to distribute surplus food.
There are 37 food pantries in the county, said Berg, but so far the program focuses on supplying some of the larger ones like The People’s Place, Ulster County Community Action, and Family of Woodstock.
Wargin noted that it has been a “slow and poor” growing season this year, but farms have still donated significant quantities of produce.
Wargin said the interns — Mark Davenport of Accord and Carrie Carson of Kerhonkson, both 18 and recent graduates of Rondout Valley High School — were paid $10 an hour from a $4,200 grant from the Kingston school district’s Learn and Serve America program.
The interns both agree that working to bring food to the hungry has been a rewarding experience. They have also been working with the Marbletown Elementary School’s wellness group, From the Ground Up, to maintain the school’s community garden and create an outdoor classroom to take advantage of the school’s nature trails, as well as helping the Snyder Estate create a community garden.
Carson plans to attend Roanoke College in Virginia in the fall to study environmental policy while Davenport, the son of Bruce Davenport of Davenport Farms, said he will attend SUNY Cobleskill and study agricultural science.
Wargin said she hopes to find funding to continue the internship program. She said additional money to pay for administrative support for volunteers and interns would also be helpful.
Berg said he believes “it is absolutely necessary” to sustain the internship program, and said that Family of Woodstock will also look to Americorps for volunteers.
The internship program is one of the ideas that came out of the Mohonk Consultation, an annual community forum that focuses on a different topic each year. This year’s topic was hunger, he said.
Berg also hopes to create a repository for local people, whether farmers or individuals with community gardens, to drop off produce when they have grown more than they need. One challenge is to “find effective ways to distribute it before it goes bad,” he said.
Berg said he is looking for grant money to set up a kitchen that could centrally prepare and process donated foods, which would help food pantries store and save food for the winter when farmers cannot produce surplus food to donate. He said he’s unsure of the cost, but said the idea has generated interest in the community.
Since its first meeting in April, Wargin and Berg said the group has continued to meet regularly to address hunger in the county in a more systematic way. Another large meeting is planned in November.
For more information on the interns’ experience, visit http://rvgainternship2009.blogspot.com/.