A Buffalo disc jockey braves freezing November temperatures to camp out in a tractor-trailer for one week to collect frozen turkeys for the Food Bank of Western New York. The sleep-out last year raised $22,842 and 41,989 pounds of food – including 2,508 frozen turkeys.
In downtown Rochester last month, 11 teams designed and built giant themed structures made entirely from full cans and packages of food. This year, CANstruction Rochester – including a Hollywood red carpet built with peanut butter jars – generated 27,699 pounds of food for Foodlink, the city’s food bank.
The Jeff Koehler family of East Syracuse each year electrifies its neighborhood with a home light and music display that runs from Thanksgiving through New Year’s and attracts donations for the Food Bank of Central New York. Last year, they collected 450 pounds of food and more than $200.
People living throughout upstate New York dig deep into their pantries and pockets this time of year for the many innovative food drives to help stock community food bank warehouses to feed the hungry.
But nowhere do they dig deeper than in the state’s four westernmost counties.
The 484,462 pounds of food collected last year in Erie, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua and Niagara counties by the Food Bank of Western New York is the largest amount raised among the five regional food banks located upstate.
The overwhelming support from generous Western New Yorkers does not surprise Marylou Borowiak, chief executive officer of the Food Bank of Western New York. Her offices are located in a sprawling warehouse facility at 91 Holt St., where food is collected, sorted, stacked to the ceiling and distributed.
“We want to be grassroots. We want children, parents and grandparents to feel they play a role in feeding the hungry, and it’s working,” Borowiak said. “Our philosophy has been to partner with the local media and retailers to come together throughout the year on phenomenal food drives.”
To date this year, the food bank sponsored 275 food drives, according to Michael J. Billoni, its public and community relations director. The top five drives last year for the food bank, were:
• Food 2 Families (WGRZ-TV and Tops Markets): 123,841 pounds of food (or approximately 103,200 meals) and $116,329 in donations.
• National Association of Letter Carriers “Stamp Out Hunger”: 114,531 pounds of food (or approximately 95,443 meals) was directed to the Food Bank WNY.
• Erie County Fair Canned Food Drive: 85,273 pounds (or approximately 71,060 meals) and $32,178.
• “Rock Out Hunger” (WGRF-FM): 41,989 pounds of food (or approximately 34,990 meals) and $22,842.
• Janet & Nick with KISS 98.5-FM: 5,241 pounds of food (or approximately 4,368 meals) and $715 in donations.
The half-million pounds of food collected through the Food Bank of Western New York represents a fraction of the food it distributes to 340 member agencies – pantries, day cares and senior centers, homeless shelters and soup kitchens. Much of the food it receives comes by way of large donations from manufacturers or retailers like Sorrento Cheese, General Mills, Walmart and BJs Wholesale Club.
Food banks also receive surplus commodities from the federal government and aid from New York State’s Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program that assist in the purchase of dairy products, fresh fruits and vegetables.
Hunters, too, contribute to the state’s food banks. Since 1999, the Venison Donation Coalition secured money for the processing and distribution of venison to families through regional food banks. Last year, 20,682 pounds of donated venison – or 17,235 meals – were distributed in Western New York.
“Eighteen years ago, people were reluctant to take venison because they didn’t know how to cook it,” said Borowiak. “Today it is very popular. As quickly as it comes in, it’s gone.”
The state’s eight regional food banks – Food Bank of Western New York, Foodlink Rochester, Northeastern New York (Albany), Central (Syracuse), Southern Tier (Elmira), Food Bank for New York City, Food Bank for Westchester and Long Island Cares – belong to the Food Bank Association of New York State, formed in the late 1990s.
It is not uncommon for association members to trade food items.
“Recently, we had an abundance of Perry’s Ice Cream, barbecue sauce and bulk cereal,” noted Borowiak. “We’ll share our products and in return we receive yogurt from Syracuse because Syracuse has an abundance of yogurt providers. When Albany’s flooding hit or when Hurricane Sandy hit, we were there with truckloads of food. Those are our sister food banks.”
Food banks have many options when procuring food.
Christina Ehlers, director of food security for Cattaraugus Community Action in Salamanca, works with the Food Bank of Western New York to oversee a program in which farmers, grocers and restaurants donate prepared and perishable surplus food. Ehlers pointed to Seneca Allegany Casino as a big donor.
“They’ll prepare the food for buffet, but not put it out on the line, and if they have a leftover tray of macaroni and cheese or goulash they donate it,” Ehlers said adding: “You can only reheat food once after it has been cooked. We pick up every day from the casino.”
The food is transported immediately to Lighthouse Community Kitchen in Salamanca, where an average of 90 dinners are served daily.
The Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry in the basement of Olean’s Hillside Wesleyan Church serves more than 400 households twice each month, according to volunteer director Linda Schafer.
And while meat (protein) appears regularly on the food pantry shopping list, at this time of year everyone is talking turkey.
“As soon as people find out turkeys are here they will be at the door, so we established a policy,” Schafer explained. “Each pantry has its own policy. We give turkeys to our regular clients, people who have been with us for at least three months. It’s not being mean. It’s what we have to do. If they don’t get turkey, we give them other meat. We have ham and chicken.”
Borowiak also has a turkey policy.
“People think we get all the turkeys donated for Thanksgiving,” she said. “But years ago we bought turkeys. What we do now is purchase whole chickens because we can get the chicken for 69 cents a pound, while the turkeys were $1.19. We still give turkeys, but only donated turkeys.”
Mark Quandt directs the Northeastern Food Bank Albany, which serves 23 counties, the largest service area in the state. Quandt said his ability to raise funds not only helps with transportation costs but also increases his purchasing power.
“We’re getting lots and lots of fresh produce this time of year, lots of apples, squash, corn and all the other end-of-season crops,” Quandt said. “It costs us money to get that transported here, plus you have to store it. If we didn’t have financial resources, we could not afford to take the donations from farmers. That would be crazy.”