Spotlighting the Kingston Emergency Food Collaborative
The Kingston Emergency Food Collaborative started as a collective effort to provide food access during COVID-19
The streets and neighborhoods may be a bit quieter in Kingston due to COVID-19, but under this “new normal,” monumental efforts are being made to distribute food to residents. Since March, prepared meals, groceries, and fresh produce have been donated widely, serving over 1,000 households. At the peak, some 2,900 prepared meals were being delivered five days a week and 500 families were receiving weekly grocery deliveries.
The food deliveries are coordinated by the Kingston Emergency Food Collaborative, a grassroots effort made up of over a dozen organizations, not including the City of Kingston and Ulster County’s Project Resilience. The Collaborative focuses on delivering meals and groceries to households in the Kingston City School District. Requests are being taken through an emergency hotline that is shared through the group’s website.
The Collaborative came together rapidly to find ways as a group to tackle food access and centralize those efforts. Each member organization plays a specific and unique role – whether it be in local food procurement, distribution, communications, or volunteer coordination. Food preparation for hot meals was handled by individual restaurants, soup kitchens, and other community food providers like Family of Woodstock’s Everett Hodge Center. Grocery Bags were organized by local food pantries including People’s Place, Community Action, and Catholic Charities.
Food donations and distribution to emergency feeding systems were, of course, active long before COVID-19. But the need escalated with the pandemic. People’s Place, for instance, saw a 430 percent rise in the number of people served compared to the same time last year.
“We were concerned about what was going to happen with food access and we knew we could have a food shortage,” says Susan Hereth, education director at the Kingston YMCA Farm Project. Hereth is also a member of Eat Well Kingston a subcommittee of the City’s Live Well Kingston Commission, the umbrella entity that promotes health and well-being.
In the Kingston City School District, before the pandemic, roughly 3,000 children were served breakfast and lunch at school every day.
Immediately following the initial shutdown, Hereth consulted with fellow members of Eat Well Kingston, noting in an email to the group that schools are closed and asking “Where and how students would access meals now?”
Emily Flynn, Director of Health and Wellness for the City of Kingston, calls the email “a spark that many people jumped at to support this work.”
At the same time, various organizations in the city were preparing for the crisis. Callie Jayne, Executive Director of Rise Up Kingston, a grassroots advocacy organization, notes the school district closed on a Monday, and by that Wednesday KEFC volunteers were delivering meals to families and individuals within the Kingston City School District.
“We assumed we wouldn’t return to school for the rest of the year and started a plan,” says Jayne who has two children ages 12 and 6 in the school system.
The speed at which the Collaborative came together and its success is worth noting. The initiative is also a window into how non-profits, local government, and community members can convene and work together to address a crisis.
No doubt the relationships between organizations that existed prior to COVID-19 were a key to the group’s success. Many members of the Collaborative also participate in Eat Well Kingston, and a number of them live and work in Kingston.
“We are deeply embedded and invested in making Kingston a vibrant, wonderful, healthy, and successful community,” Hereth says. Moreover, everyone brought complementary skills that “flowed together well.”
“We already had a trust there and it was easy to communicate with each other,” says Flynn. “That is the amazing and miraculous thing right now — the organizations come with many different missions and we have worked really well together.”
The actual work of distributing food has happened through grassroots efforts bolstered by technology to support remote communication. Members organized themselves into categories of production, packing and distribution, communication, and volunteer coordination. There are daily calls, virtual meetings, a weekly distribution team meeting, and a vibrant Slack channel.
At the Farm Hub, the Community Food team procured and distributed produce to the organizations on the front line of keeping people fed.
From the last week in April through mid-June, the Farm Hub distributed over 50,000 meals worth of produce to community organizations including People’s Place, Family of Woodstock, Dutchess Outreach, CCE Orange County Gleaning Program, and others that disperse food out to people who need it throughout Ulster, Orange, and Dutchess counties in efforts within the KEFC as well as emergency feeding programs outside of the county. The Farm Hub’s Community Food team also worked on procuring healthy produce and served as lead organizers to the KEFC grocery box delivery program.
A multitude of volunteers
Volunteers – about 600 of them – are critical to the effort. Rise Up’s Jayne pulled together an initial group of volunteers to do the work of reaching out and organizing all the other individuals who signed up to volunteer. Troy Ellen Dixon of the A.J. Williams-Myers African Roots Center and Caitlin Salemi co-coordinate what’s now the KEFC Volunteer Scheduling team, which has ranged from having 10 to 16 schedulers, all who work remotely to slot volunteers into shifts. Jayne calls the seamless coordination “amazing.”
There are volunteers of all ages from teens to senior citizens. “Everybody brings their skills, talent, and commitment to feeding people in Kingston in this crazy time,” says Hereth. “People are really looking to help in a time of crisis.”
Michael Berg, executive director of Family of Woodstock Inc., says COVID-19 offered a window for organizations and people of all backgrounds to get involved.
“Not once did I hear any issues about not having enough volunteers to do the work. The whole community seemed to have collectively decided to help, and the people behind the scenes were working around the clock to keep everything running smoothly,” says Jeff Scott, the Farm Hub’s marketing and logistics coordinator.
A new chapter
In the short time it has existed, the Collaborative has already seen a number of rapid changes. In mid-May, there was a move to expand groceries, deliveries, and scale back on prepared meals.
While the funding from Project Resilience to have local restaurants prepare meals has ended, it continues for grocery deliveries until the end of July 2020.
The benefit is that groceries last longer for families, and “are more affordable to procure and have less packaging, so it’s more sustainable. In the long term it makes sense,” says Katrina Light, community food manager at the Farm Hub.
The Everett Hodge Center through the Family of Woodstock, which had typically provided some 150 dinners daily to children, prior to the pandemic, will continue to do so. During the pandemic, they increased their production and provided 3,000 dinners a week. The Hodge Center continues to work with KEFC volunteers to distribute prepared meals to high need individuals and families living in motels and boarding houses in Ulster County.
While the next phase of the pandemic is unclear it’s safe to assume that the impact from COVID-19 will be long-lasting. In the meantime, the pandemic has exposed a vulnerable food system with cracks and fissures. It also sparks questions on how to address food access in the long run.
“Now that we’ve had a little chance to catch up, the group is trying to figure out long term systematic changes. I think Ulster County can serve as an amazing model for the rest of the country,” says Hereth citing widespread support for farmers and active distribution channels.
She continued: “I think all of us are wondering what other solutions there could be to fix this system that is so apparently broken. People need healthy food and they need decent wages.”
The daily landscape evolves as the pandemic continues. By June the hotline slowed as more people returned to work, unemployment insurance and SNAP benefits increased, and as the weather warmed and more folks go out to access food.
“Things are scaling back and we are starting to look to the future and how we can reduce food insecurity moving forward,” Light says.
The volunteer force remains robust with about fifty volunteers managing the hotline, schedules, and delivering food several times a week.
“It takes a whole village to do this. Most are volunteers, and they come back again and again,” Flynn says.
The experience has been a positive one for everyone involved in the Collaborative. They work well together and they know they are able to get food out to those in need during an emergency. It motivates them to continue addressing food insecurity at its roots, member organizations say. During these unprecedented times, the Collaborative is just one of many efforts and initiatives across the country that show the power of a strong community.
“A lot of people have stepped up and this is really a tribute to our community,” says Berg.
Indeed, crisis is often a catalyst for permanent change.
For more information
The Kingston Emergency Food Collaborative is a coalition of 15 community organizations, community members, the city of Kingston, and Ulster County’s Project Resilience.
For more information about the Kingston Emergency Food Collaborative go to www.kingstonemergencyfood.com or call 845-443-8888.
To Learn More
Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress, a nonprofit research, policy and planning group, issued a report in May 2020 that explores food insecurity in the Hudson Valley and recent disruptions to the food supply due to COVID-19. Click here to read the report.
The Hamilton Project released results from the “COVID Impact Survey and The Hamilton Project/Future of the Middle Class Initiative Survey of Mothers with Young Children” in late April 2020. Click here to learn more.
By the Numbers
*Note: The following information was provided by the City of Kingston and Ulster County during the week of May 4, 2020.
March 18 – 175 meals delivered March 23 – 25 households receiving grocery deliveriesApril 24 – 2,900 meals delivered
April 27 – 90 households receiving grocery deliveries
May 4 – The Kingston Emergency Food Collaborative has entered week 8 of prepared meal distribution out of the YMCA of Kingston & Ulster County. Each day about 30 volunteers help pack and deliver meals throughout the City of Kingston & the school district’s area, 800 community members received two meals each today.
May 16 – main meal distribution hub shifts from the Kingston YMCA to the Everett Hodge Center where as much as 600+ meals will be served there.
Grocery distribution ramps up with People’s Place, Community Action and Catholic Charities to provide groceries to over 500 families each week.
The Kingston Emergency Food Collaborative is only one of a number of initiatives in Ulster County and beyond that address challenges from Covid-19. Below are other examples of other efforts.
Project Resilience is a community fund and local food distribution effort that was launched by Ulster County on March 17 to help residents and support small businesses including restaurants impacted by Covid-19. As of May the initiative had delivered an estimated 150,000 prepared meals.
Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ulster County
CCE Ulster created and compiled an interactive map that highlights an up-to-date listing of local farms, farm markets, and food pantries in Ulster County. The map also includes Dutchess County, Columbia County, Sullivan County, and Orange County. To access the map, click here.
Cornell Cooperative Extension Orange County
CCE Orange County runs a gleaning program that brings hundreds of thousands of pounds of unused fresh produce to the GleanMobile (a refrigerated box truck) for delivery to local soup kitchens and food pantries. Some food has also been distributed to Rockland County and to Sullivan County.
Rondout Valley Growers Association
The Rondout Valley Growers Association, also known as the RVGA, is a farmer-led nonprofit organization, made up of small and mid-sized producers in the Rondout Valley. The RVGA launched a Farmer Innovation GoFundMe campaign where all donations go toward helping farmers innovate to survive Covid-19. For more information on the fund or to donate, click here.
American Farmland Trust
The American Farmland Trust (AFT), a national organization that works to protect and conserve farmland, launched the Farmer Relief Fund that gives cash grants to farmers who are in need of assistance. For more information on the fund or to donate, click here.
RUPCO is a Kingston-based nonprofit that focuses on improving and supporting communities through the lens of housing. The organization launched a comprehensive website that lists contacts and resources for emergency food access. For more information, click here.