Hunger in the Highlands

hunger in highlands
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Second in a series

It’s Friday at Second Chance Foods, which operates out of the Community of the Holy Spirit in Brewster. Friday means cooking. A dozen volunteers are breaking down winter squash and chopping alliums. A fleet of Instant Pots bubble away, and every once in a while a volunteer lets off steam from a massive pressure cooker.

Half of the gymnasium next to the kitchen is filled with boxes, being packed with meals that have been cooked in the kitchen, as well as fresh produce from local farms and food donated by grocery stores.

It’s not busy, though. You don’t know busy.

“You should have been here Tuesday,” says Rich Winters, treasurer of the board at Second Chance Foods and chief dishwasher. “On Tuesdays, all of us leave here and we can’t move. It’s nonstop.”

Second Chance Foods isn’t exactly a food pantry. It’s not quite a soup kitchen, either.

“We call ourselves a food rescue,” says Martha Elder, its executive director.

The organization was founded in 2015 after Alison Jolicoeur, who lives in Beacon, learned that 40 percent of the food grown or produced in the U.S. ends up in the garbage. Diverting just a fraction of that food could end food insecurity in the country, but as Jolicoeur and friends who helped her found the nonprofit soon realized, there were pragmatic challenges to distributing food — such as getting excess tomatoes into the hands of the hungry before the vegetables rot.

Volunteers

Volunteers in the kitchen at Second Chance Foods (Photo by B. Cronin)

“We realized that if we could cook some of this food, we could greatly extend the shelf life,” says Elder, who is the only full-time employee. There is also a part-time employee, but Second Chance is powered by about 50 volunteers who cook, garden, pick up grocery store stock that is close to its sales expiration date, harvest excess produce and pack meal kits.

The organization started out cooking 10 months of the year (closing in the depths of winter), but new sources of donations kept being discovered, so it switched to cooking once a week year-round. Then the pandemic hit and it moved to twice a week (Tuesdays and Fridays), cooking and freezing meals to be delivered to soup kitchens and food pantries.

Elder says she usually doesn’t know what donations are going to come in until the day before, if that. “I can’t make a plan a week in advance, because somebody might tell me ‘I’ve got a couple of hundred pounds of cheese pumpkins,’ ” she explains, standing by a table laden with a couple of hundred pounds of cheese pumpkins. “So we’re going to make a lasagna that has a layer of that, we’re going to make a curry that uses that, we’re making a soup that’s got that, and it’s all going to a soup kitchen in Newburgh.”

There’s a recipe on the wall from The Food Network for roasted butternut squash lasagna that feeds eight. “We’re cooking for 180 people today,” says Elder, so all the quantities have been multiplied: 30 sliced onions, 15 quarts of squash or pumpkin, a whole cup of freshly chopped sage.

Most of the recipes come from Cook’s Illustrated or The New York Times because Elder knows those recipes have been tested, will work, and, most importantly, will taste good.

“The only nourishing food is the food you actually eat,” she says.

Second Chance Foods is a “food rescue” but also considers itself a health care organization. “Poor diet is the No. 1 killer of Americans,” says Elder, citing the combined effects of heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. “We could save so much money and so many lives just by helping people to eat better.”

Numerous studies have shown the amplifying effects of a nutritious diet, including improved concentration, emotional health and — especially important during a global pandemic — a strong immune system. Unlike members of the middle and upper classes, Americans who have food and income insecurities are pushed to their physical and emotional limits every day, trying to survive, advocates say. And fresh produce or healthy meals is typically not what they find at a food bank.

“You know when you go to the grocery store, and there’s a bag there, and the sign says, ‘Give us $10 and we’ll give this bag to someone?’” says Winters. “It’s junk in that bag.”

Elder and Winter believe that giving someone a healthy meal provides them with two things that many emergency feeding systems don’t: Nutrition, and dignity.

‘It was a relief’

“There’s an ignorance that those who have toward those who have not,” says Cate Maher, who lives in Garrison and once relied on Second Chance Food. She says she too often hears the accusation that someone has food insecurities because they’re “not working hard enough.”

Maher was once a stay-at-home mom, married with two young children. When her marriage suddenly ended, she became a single unemployed mom with two young children. She needed work, but her kids needed her.

“For their emotional stability, they needed to have their mom close by,” she says. Maher was able to find a job with flexible hours and an employer who understood the schedule that a single working mom sometimes needs.

“What comes along with that is not a high salary,” she says. “I needed to do what I needed to do.” She signed up for Medicaid and started picking up food from a pantry in Brewster. That was where she discovered Second Chance.

She says that “we felt like we won the lottery: To look through the bag and see that this week we got stuff from Second Chance, to know that it was prepared with love and with care and with consideration for the families that they’re feeding. It felt like a holiday meal.”

Maher credits Second Chance Foods with helping her put healthy, restorative food on the table and survive a difficult time of her life, while working toward financial independence. She no longer needs to pick up food from pantries, but still fondly recalls the meals that Second Chance gave her: The white chicken chili, the chowder, the quarts of marinara sauce that she used to turn into several meals.

“They took a lot of the pressure off me on those days when I didn’t know what I was going to do and what I was going to pull together that my kids would eat and enjoy,” she says. “It was a relief.”

refrigerated truck

Rich Winters with Second Chance Foods’ new refrigerated trailer (Photo by B. Cronin)

Maher’s job keeps her too busy to volunteer with Second Chance Foods, but she did find a way to give back. A few weeks ago, she donated a pressure cooker and an Instant Pot. She delivered them personally to Community of the Holy Spirit so she could meet Elder and the volunteers for the first time and thank them in person.

It also showed Maher what Elder and Winter will tell anyone who will listen: They could do so much more.

“They are willing and they have the desire and the drive,” says Maher. “But they’ve outgrown that space.”

A refrigerated trailer donated by the Rotary Club of Southeast has helped, but there’s not enough space to accept all the donations that are offered, and not enough room for all of the volunteers who want to help. Elder says they often have to leave food in the fields because they don’t have capacity.

“There seems to be no limit to people’s generosity when it comes to the produce and the food and the chickens and the groceries,” says Winter, standing in front of a closet with an air conditioner that runs 24/7 to create an ad hoc fridge. They’ve run more power lines and outlets to the kitchen and redesigned whatever they can for maximum efficiency.

 “I don’t want to sound corny, but this is God’s work,” says Winter. “You feed people. No ifs, ands or buts.”

Take what you need

Advocates say that the main reason that food insecurity has, as a whole, remained steady despite more people being in need during the pandemic is that many of the usual barriers that prevent people from accessing food have fallen away. Instead of the usual paperwork and scrutiny, people are simply being fed. No ifs, ands or buts.

That’s in sharp contrast to the way things usually run. Karen George and Kara Marie Dean-Assael, the founders of Fareground in Beacon, say they have found it easier to acquire food to distribute in Beacon, Wappingers Falls and Newburgh over the past 18 months. But in order to continue to receive food post-pandemic from some of the regional food banks, they first have to prove that the people receiving their donations qualify to get them.

“Isn’t people showing up enough?” asks Dean-Assael. “Do you know how many people cry when they get food from us, saying, ‘Thank you so much, you have no idea?’ ”

Kara Dean-Assael and Karen George

Kara Dean-Assael and Karen George of Fareground (Photo by Dylan Assael)

George and Dean-Assael have heard from the people they help about the difficulty of navigating the system to get benefits, a system they say is unnecessarily punishing.

“They don’t know how to do it, they don’t understand how to do it, and so they don’t do it,” says George. “They feel like they’re being made to stay where they are instead of being able to get up and get out.”

Fareground’s focus has evolved over its seven years of existence. It has been giving food away during the pandemic but also working on the larger issue of destigmatizing hunger, of finding ways to help people who have been made ashamed to ask for help. “We have run into young moms who have kids who will not go to a food pantry because they feel like they’re being judged, or they’re embarrassed,” says George.

Hence, the Tiny Food Pantries.

There are four of them across Beacon that Fareground operates: one in front of Binnacle Books, one inside the Howland Library, one in front of the Recreation Center and one in Tompkins Terrace. There are also two community fridges, one behind Binnacle Books and one at the Recreation Center.

The premise is simple: Take what you need, leave what you can. Fareground stocks the pantries with food, but anyone who wishes to donate, even if it’s just a can of soup, can deposit it in the pantry or fridge. The pantries remove barriers for those who need food, but also for those who want to help. Soup kitchens and food pantries are only open at certain times, which might conflict with a job.

“If there’s a stigma attached to you needing help, you can sort of do it on the down low,” says George.

tiny food pantry

Fareground installed a Tiny Food Pantry outside the Beacon Recreation Center in 2017. (File photo by B. Cronin)

Adds Dean-Assael: “People don’t know if I’m going to pick up food or drop off food. There’s a little anonymity and it doesn’t matter.”

When the group was first setting up the pantries, a criticism they heard was that one person could empty it out. The Fareground response is that if someone is taking all of the food, that’s fine because it means they need it. They have, however, added signs with contact information for people who need more food than what’s there, so Fareground can help.

The only time George ran into this problem — a woman at the Recreation Center was taking the food as she was stocking it — George found she was delivering to homebound seniors at Tompkins Terrace. “I told her that’s fabulous,” said George. “You’re helping us help them.” She now arranges larger drop-offs.

Fareground’s original mission was to create a “community kitchen”: A pay-what-you-can-if-you-can feeding space within Beacon that would feed the food-insecure, the time-crunched or anyone who wants a meal with their community. That would also remove a lot of the barriers and stigmas attached to food insecurity, says Maggie Dickinson, a Beacon resident and author of Feeding the Crisis: Care and Abandonment in America’s Food Safety Net.

Finding steady funding for such programs is difficult, but Dickinson says that this is where local communities can make a difference. She points out that we feed kids in school and seniors at senior centers for free or at low cost but don’t do this for the general population.

“There are lots of things that cities and towns could do that they don’t see as their role but which would make a huge impact,” she says. “Who’s thinking about food at the local level? There’s nobody in city government whose job it is, whose portfolio that is. We leave it all to ‘the market.’ Food is fundamental to how we all live and there’s an awful lot more we could do if we were paying attention at the local level. But we typically don’t.”

Read more from this series

Part 1 || Part 2 || Part 3 || Part 4 || Resource Guide

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