Food insecurity and the need for access, fueled by the pandemic, drive food distribution at the Farm Hub
For Christine Hein, the calls for food ramped up as the holidays approached. In fact, with the winter season in full swing, there were growing requests from families as schools closed for winter break. At the same time, COVID-19 cases were beginning to climb again. Hein, executive director of People’s Place, a Kingston-based non-profit that focuses on food distribution for the needy, says the organization was deluged with calls. Desperate, some individuals reached out to her directly.
The numbers speak to the dire need for food as the pandemic has created economic hardship across the board. In many communities, the image of need included lengthy queues at food pantries. Amid COVID, food insecurity has skyrocketed globally, and Ulster County NY is no exception when it comes to this big impact issue. Prior to COVID, about 50% of students K-12 already received free to reduced-cost meals. People’s Place saw 1,100 new families served in 2020, with nearly a million meals distributed in Ulster County, a 26% jump from the previous year.
While there was a decline in demand over the summer with a respite of warmer weather and a drop in COVID cases, this grew again with the holiday season. By the end of December 2020, Ulster County reported a record high of 2,159 cases, according to the County’s COVID dashboard.
The ripple effect has meant that the farms, food organizations, and businesses with whom People’s Place traditionally works have stepped up production to meet donation demands. Many have sought innovative ways to increase their donations. When COVID-19 was officially recognized as a pandemic, and with New York, one of the first states to be hard hit, the Farm Hub shifted its distribution plan to focus squarely on the burgeoning needs of the emergency food systems in Ulster County.
The Farm Hub’s growing Community Food Program shifted into high gear, working closely with the production team and a network of community partners to ensure that fresh and locally produced food would reach those in greatest need, including local elementary students (see sidebar on school donation).
In the 2020 growing season, the Farm Hub boosted food production, adjusting the crop plan to accommodate the growing need. The production team expanded the growth of all crops, especially storage crops such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, and carrots that hold well throughout the winter months. Dry edible beans, namely pinto beans and dry black beans, were added to the donation mix. Since March 2020, nearly all of the Farm Hub’s produce has been directed to the emergency feeding system in the region.
A good deal of the Farm Hub’s 2020 food production has been directed towards neighboring Kingston. Vegetables grown by the Farm Hub and the Kingston YMCA Farm Project were distributed at the “free farm stand” held July through October at the Institute for Family Health in Kingston. In the winter months, the Farm hub collaborates with the Farm Project to make produce available at the Kingston YMCA winter market. The Farm Hub is also an active member of the Kingston Emergency Food Collaborative, also known as the KEFC, a grassroots effort made up of over a dozen organizations, including the City of Kingston and Ulster County’s Project Resilience. The KEFC focuses on delivering meals and groceries to households in the Kingston City School District and is home to an emergency hotline that is shared through the group’s website.
Processing and storage
The increased demand for donations this past year meant a greater need for food processing and storage. “While COVID is currently driving the need for fresh food and has made donation our main priority, the Farm Hub has long been committed to supporting access to healthy, local food in the Hudson Valley through supporting distribution networks and community partnerships,” says Brooke Pickering-Cole, executive director. “It is a part of our mission.”
For the second year in a row, the Farm Hub made its building on Route 209 (the former farm stand) available to the Farm to Food Pantry Collaborative (a program that addresses food insecurity led by Family of Woodstock, the Rondout Valley Growers Association, UlsterCorps, and the Bruderhof Community), for food processing. Throughout the spring and into the fall under strict safety guidelines and social distancing, a core team of volunteers cut and bagged produce from the Farm Hub and neighboring farms for freezing and storage for donation.
“Thank you (Farm Hub) and all of the farmers. I think it’s about 50 percent [of the produce we distribute] and it has made a world of difference throughout all of the pantries that we serve,” says Beth Albright, director of UlsterCorps, a Kingston-based organization that fosters volunteerism and community service. Albright recruited and managed the volunteers and often joined them herself in the produce prep work.
UlsterCorps started distributing the produce (including corn, beans, cauliflower, broccoli, and parsnips) processed and frozen over the summer. Albright says root crops including carrots, beets, sweet potatoes, radishes, parsnips, and winter squash are tremendous when it comes to the scope of meeting the needs of the community.
“That enables us to give out fresh produce year-round,” Albright says.
The Community Food program has extended its food distribution to places such as Dutchess Outreach. On a recent day, the Farm Hub dropped off boxes of sweet potatoes, turnips, beets, watermelon radishes, and an assortment of dry beans to the Poughkeepsie, NY-based non-profit, which distributes food to the community through its food pantry.
Back in Kingston, Hein says donations and goodwill have made all the difference as demand for emergency food remains steady. In the parking lot outside of People’s Place the daily “bounty table” — holding a thousand pounds of food and open to whoever comes – is always bare by the end of the day. The table is packed with snacks, grains, proteins, and fresh produce.
Donations have always been at the forefront of the Farm Hub’s distribution goals. Emergency food programs and distributors made up roughly 72% of the Farm Hub’s vegetable distribution from May 2019 through March 2020. We started with an existing network of partners including People’s Place and the Farm to Food Pantry Collaborative, which includes UlsterCorps, Family of Woodstock Inc., and the Rondout Valley Growers Association. Pre-pandemic, we began building out production capability and much-needed infrastructure for distribution. In 2018, winter production launched and we provided fresh produce to venues such as the Kingston YMCA Farm Project’s winter farm stand. At the start of 2019, the Farm Hub opened two state-of-the-art greenhouses with twice the capacity for indoor growing. That same year the field crops team started production of dry, edible beans including black, pinto, and small red beans.
Highlights from the Farm Hub’s 2020 food distribution report include:
- In focusing on March 2020 to March 2021 timeframe, which aligns with our pandemic response, we donated 395,827 lbs of product. When the pandemic started in early 2020 and we saw an increased need for food in our community, we began by distributing all of our remaining winter storage crops from the 2019 growing season. Those 10,000 lbs were gone in just under two weeks.
- As of September 2020, the donations provided 495,200 servings of produce, enough to support 339 families for a year.
When the produce briefly ran out in early spring the Farm Hub also sourced from local farms, purchasing produce that would go into the emergency feeding system.
- New greenhouses, completed at the start of 2020, enabled the Farm Hub to increase production of mixed greens year-round, distributed to the KYFP Winter Market.
- The Farm Hub also donated All-Purpose flour and dry beans.
County Executive Ryan Announces Additional Funding to Support Food Pantries, ulstercountyny.gov
Food Security and COVID-19, The World Bank