LATHAM — New York farmers whose customer base suddenly shrank due to the pandemic have been connected with New York residents whose income suddenly shrank for the same reason.
Nourish New York has brokered more than 5 million pounds of food between the two ends of the food chain since it was created on a rush basis at the start of May.
The largest component of the program outside New York City has been the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York in Latham, which has moved 1.1 million pounds of food from producer to consumer via Nourish New York in two months.
The COVID-19 pandemic, a public health crisis unprecedented in modern times, also created a financial crisis for some New York farmers, who derive as much as 50 percent of their business from sales to food services.
Food service providers suddenly had no restaurants or schools to supply, and fewer institutional or business dining rooms because so many businesses were shut down.
With so many businesses shut down, many employees were suddenly without income, only unemployment benefits that were not immediately available in some cases, and which didn’t fully replace income in others.
State Commissioner of Agriculture and Markets Richard Ball said it was a situation where the most vulnerable people on both ends of the supply chain suffered — some dairy farmers had to dump their milk while food banks saw requests for help double.
Ag & Markets and the state Department of Health were charged with linking supply and demand. Nourish New York was the result.
It was not reinventing the wheel, said Ball, who as chairman of the state Council on Hunger and Food Policy was already familiar with the need to get quality fresh food to the needy and the means to do this. New York farmers, meanwhile, have been the nation’s top donors of food to the needy about a dozen of the last 15 years, he added.
“We worked on this [only] a couple of days literally,” Ball said.
With a lot of phone calls and remote conferencing, a network of food banks was set up quickly to facilitate the movement of surplus products from those who couldn’t sell them to those who couldn’t afford to buy them.
“We’re not dumping milk anymore, I’m happy to tell you,” Ball said.
Two months in, Nourish New York has spent nearly $6 million of its $24 million allocation and moved more than 5 million pounds of food.
Seth McEachron, co-owner of the Battenkill Creamery in Washington County, said “This coronavirus has really thrown a wrench in our production here. [Nourish New York has] helped us balance a little bit.”
Battenkill sells 1,300 gallons of milk per week to Nourish New York. They sell it at cost, so there’s no profit, but neither is there the 100% loss they saw early on.
“It’s better than dumping it down the drain,” McEachron said.
Battenkill has built an usually successful business model: 800 cows milking on two family farms with its own processing, bottling, ice cream making, residential delivery and food service supply.
This vertically integrated model is preferable to being part of a coop 99% of the time, McEacheron said.
The pandemic was the 1%, as many of Battenkill’s wholesale customers are New York City restaurants and coffee shops, which are operating at reduced levels or not at all.
One bright note: Battenkill’s retail sales in the Capital Region are up as people who might eat out eat at home instead.
But on the whole, business is down 35%.
“It’s not just dairy, there were a lot of winter crops that were left over,” said New York Farm Bureau spokesman Steve Ammerman said.
There’s a certain visual drama to fresh milk being dumped or spread on fields, but crops in cold storage such as carrots, onions, cabbage and apples also suddenly didn’t have a market when spring started.
Nourish New York has been an important support for farmers, Ammerman said.
Mark Quandt, executive director of the Latham food bank, said fresh food is more fragile and perishable but it is much-appreciated by recipients and provides nutritional value.
And it is needed, he said.
“It really has turned into just a wonderful program, we love it,” he said.
Since the pandemic shutdown started March 16, the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York has increased its food distribution 53%. It provided 41 million pounds of food last year and is on track at the current rate to move 60 million pounds this year.
All this has created a need for additional warehouse space and personnel to move the food around.
“People have been generous to us, which has helped a lot,” Quandt said. What’s ahead is worrisome, though: “Nobody knows how long this level of need is going to continue.”
Commissioner Ball said summer’s bounty is coming into the program now, as the warm weather crops begin to be harvested.
Nourish New York is a six-month program with the majority of its funding still unspent, so it will continue into autumn. What happens then is impossible to tell now, Ball said. How bad the pandemic is at that point, how many students are in a school setting rather than at home, how bad the state’s finances are, how much normalcy resumes are all unknown.
If nothing else, the concepts within Nourish New York will continue, he said, and the food supply chain will not be taken for granted.
“There’s no question Nourish will go on to some extent,” Ball said.
“I would hope and I expect fully that we’re going to take advantage of those new relationships.”