SCHENECTADY — Cars snaked through the food-donation drive-thru at Crosstown Plaza on a cloudy morning last week, three-deep and trunks popped.
Joanna Smith had been waiting for 45 minutes with a bundled-up grandchild in the backseat.
Smith, who is on disability and is undergoing treatment for breast cancer, said the operation run by Catholic Charities plays a critical role in feeding her grandkids.
“They give you a reason to get up,” Smith said.
Amid a renewed winter surge of the coronavirus, the Capital Region is facing the highest numbers of infections since the onset of the pandemic in March: Albany County is consistently smashing infection and hospitalization records while Saratoga County acknowledged the 145 percent increase in cases within the past two weeks has overwhelmed its contact-tracing process.
But while some elements are a departure from the spring wave — more patients are surviving hospitalizations and officials are preparing for the first round of vaccine distributions — other aspects remain consistent.
Nationwide, more people are going without food than at any time during the pandemic.
Last year, 3.4 percent of adults were food insecure, said Dr. Colleen Heflin, professor of public administration and international affairs at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.
By April, the number had tripled.
And as of mid-November, 12 percent of adults reported they didn’t have enough to eat within the past seven days, according to an analysis by the Washington Post.
Locally, 95,000 people in the seven-county area served by the United Way of the Greater Capital Region, or 10 percent of the population, are experiencing hunger or food insecurity.
“The level is rising to Great Depression levels,” Heflin said.
COVID’s emergence blew gaping holes in food security and the extent to which so many Americans are just a paycheck away from hunger.
The number of people attending mass-distribution events spiked this spring and the needle stayed there.
Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany expected between 600 and 700 vehicles at its drive-thru at Crosstown Plaza last Thursday, one of 10 events planned for December alone.
“The naked need behind the scenes is now in front of the scenes,” said Mark Emanatian, director of the Capital District Area Labor Federation. “We’re barely holding the dam back from bursting.”
For the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York, demand has remained steady since mid-March.
“We already went into this period with our numbers unprecedentedly high,” said Susan Lintner, director of community impact at the Regional Food Bank. “We didn’t get that break, and we’ve just been going at the same level of speed more methodologically then we were at the beginning.”
The Regional Food Bank has churned through 43.1 million pounds of food as part of its COVID relief efforts, a 37 percent increase over last year.
The city of Schenectady’s largest food pantry, Schenectady Community Ministries, now serves 1,200 households each month, up 300 percent from the year before.
“We’re definitely busy and December is going to be just as busy,” said Jo-Anne Rafalik, acting executive director.
Part of the increase is related to school restrictions.
With the disruption of after-school programs that families have traditionally leaned upon, families are often required to pick up the slack.
That was evident this summer, when United Way of the Greater Capital Region’s Summer Meals Collaborative, which provides free lunches at 108 sites across the Capital Region, served 429,054 meals this summer — an 82 percent increase over last year.
“Typically those sites provide summer programming for children, but needed to adapt their programs to provide pick-up and delivery meals this year,” said Cassandra Madsen, a United Way spokesperson.
Several dozen people queued up outside of Schenectady Community Ministries on Albany Street on Friday morning:
Overnight shift-workers, the unemployed, the disabled, people on scooters — people just scraping by.
The pantry doesn’t open up until 8:30 a.m. but people start lining up as early as 7 a.m.
A man who identified himself as Rob doesn’t come often, but when he does, he likes the fresh fruit and produce, which can be pricey at grocery stores.
Whatever he doesn’t need, Rob redistributes to his neighbors at the nearby Joseph L. Allen Apartments, mostly shut-ins afraid of COVID, he said.
“I do it when I can,” he said.
Across the board, the increase in volume is staggering.
Last year, Catholic Charities served 5,366 people through mass drops, a number that has now swelled to 100,000 in their 14-county diocese.
Among them are new faces, folks who are also trying to keep up with heat and mortgage payments, said Vincent W. Colonno, CEO of Catholic Charities.
“They come from all walks of life,” he said.
The agency distributed 1.5 million pounds of food this year in conjunction with the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York, which serves a central distribution hub, steering food to 1,000 partner agencies across the region.
Since mid-March, demand has remained constant as the agency has continued to refine its operation.
At the pandemic’s onset, the Latham-based agency operated just one branch facility and one distribution center.
Now they have five warehouses, four of them in Colonie, due to the sheer volume of food circulating through the system.
“It allows us to function in this new dynamic,” Lintner said.
DARK DAYS AHEAD
Despite the sustained need, storm clouds are gathering.
The state’s Nourish New York program, which has steered $35 million in surplus food from local farms to food banks since May, is scheduled to expire Dec. 31.
Lintner has her fingers crossed.
“We have been so lucky to have access to funds to purchase produce, dairy and meat items from New York farmers through this unprecedented time of need,” she said. “Our hope is that funding for the program continues into 2021 and beyond.”
Other groups, including the New York State Community Food Assistance Network, are also calling for the program to continue, as well as funding to keep pantries operational.
“In addition to providing food to New Yorkers in need, our organizations are often a first point of contact for a wide array of social services, which have seen a similar increased need due to COVID-19,” said Larry Lewis, a spokesman for Schenectady-based volunteer coalition Concerned for the Hungry.
There’s also a challenge of keeping volunteers, many of whom are at high-risk for the virus.
Of the 30 regulars present when Lewis began volunteering this spring, only three or four remain, he said.
Despite optimism generated by the emergence of vaccines that could reach high-risk New Yorkers within days following emergency federal authorization Friday night, the nation remains gripped in an economic downturn, financial pain that may be compounded once federal pandemic unemployment assistance runs out by the end of the year and reverts back to pre-COVID baselines.
“For most people who have been on employment since the beginning of the pandemic, they’re given a number of weeks, and those weeks are going to run out,” Heflin said.
Congress remains at a stalemate after talks on a $900 billion relief-aid package collapsed last week.
“There is a cliff right there that hasn’t been fixed yet,” Heflin said.
Those programs have been critical in helping people avert disaster, she said, including the federal authorization giving states the leeway to increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits.
Yet 40 percent of recipients nationwide are already receiving the maximum amount, and they’re not seeing any increase.
As such, calls are growing nationwide for SNAP benefits to be increased by an additional 15 percent, the same amount as during the Great Recession, Heflin said.
“As we move into the New Year, I think there’s going to be a lot of pressure on the Biden Administration to have a SNAP benefit increase,” Heflin said.
Heflin also expressed concerns over a cascading effect once winter sets in and low-income residents are forced to choose between food, heating, medicine and rent, a phenomenon known as the “heat or eat” dilemma.
Often, food is the first expense to be slashed, a decision that can result in adverse health effects for high-risk people — including expecting mothers.
“This could put a further strain on the non-COVID health care system,” Heflin said.
ADAPTING ON THE FLY
Agencies on frontlines are navigating the delicate balancing act of tackling immediate logistical challenges in feeding thousands of hungry people while keeping their eyes on remedies to the broader systemic imbalances that have been laid bare by the pandemic.
When it comes to short-term tweaks, non-profits have become more nimble in their response.
In addition to scaling up their warehouses, the Regional Food Bank also started delivery to senior housing sites, providing an additional layer of security for vulnerable residents who choose to stay indoors.
Street Soldiers, a private organization which distributes food, clothing and other items to residents every Sunday outside of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church on Nott Terrace, has streamlined distribution.
Events are now more specialized and are focused on particular items — like coat donations, for instance — in an attempt to prevent mingling and to get people in and out as fast as possible, said Maura Furey, site coordinator.
“Our numbers have doubled since the pandemic,” Furey said.
Street Soldiers serves 220 people weekly, a number Furey believes is artificially low because unlike the spring, more guests are attending solo for safety reasons— not with family members in tow.
Other organizations are also adapting.
The Schenectady Foundation played a leading role in relief efforts in the county this spring by helping to transform the Boys & Girls Club of Schenectady into an emergency response center.
While there are no plans to do so again, the philanthropic organization is finding ways to stitch together a more resilient food system and fill in gaps wherever needed.
It’s purchased freezers for smaller food pantries, a measure which allows it to provide more than just non-perishable items, as well as worked with operators to expand its service hours in a bid to reach more people.
As cases rise, the Schenectady Foundation is also toying with ways to better deliver food and supplies to high-risk people or those in self-quarantine or isolation.
“Part of our role is stepping back from day-to-day and looking at the grand scheme,” said Robert Carreau, executive director.
Emanatian, the Capital District Area Labor Federation director, has co-organized roughly three-dozen distribution events since the pandemic’s onset.
Volunteers are becoming more efficient, he said. What once took three hours to distribute 500 pounds of food now takes 90 minutes. (But the flipside is that more people are turned away, including 200 cars at Hudson Valley Community College last month.)
The onset of winter presents additional challenges.
“What I’m worried about as we go into winter is how do we do this?” Emanatian said.
That includes how to unload tractor-trailers and sort items during winter conditions, including snow and ice, which will present challenges, including for a volunteer force that tends to skew elderly.
“How do you do that in the middle of the snowstorm?” Emanatian said. “We haven’t gotten a bunch of great answers to those questions.”
As Congress bickers over a relief package and long-term solutions to food insecurity, local organizations have quietly been working to build more sustainable food systems for decades.
The pandemic has simply accelerated the timeline.
Emergency food distribution programs and food pantries, while crucial safety nets, are not long-term solutions to hunger, said Amy Klein, executive director of Capital Roots, a Troy-based non-profit with a mission to promote locally-grown food.
“It’s really not a solution to food security, and doesn’t solve the problem of access to regular supply of quality food in communities where people need it,” Klein said. “We as a society need to look at what the needs are and not have a knee-jerk reaction or a Band-Aid approach and think in longer terms for food security and what the challenges are.”
Communities must gradually pivot to empowering organizations that grow their food to distribute throughout community networks, Klein said, including schools, non-profits, food pantries and other organizations.
Capital Roots operates 55 community gardens in Rensselaer, Schenectady, Albany and southern Saratoga Counties, where 4,000 people grow their own food, programming Klein calls a “lynchpin of self-sufficiency.”
In addition to the gardens, Capital Roots offers nutritional and horticultural educational programming, and works with stores to ensure customers in food deserts, or urban areas with no full-service grocery stores, can access produce at low cost.
Capital Roots also launched the nation’s first “VeggieMobile,” which distributes produce to food deserts.
“People thought we were crazy when we launched over a decade ago,” Klein said, citing chatter doubting whether low-income people would use their SNAP benefits on produce. “And we had a line waiting for us on the first day.”
Contrary to some misconceptions, low-income people do want to eat healthy and know how to cook, Klein said.
“They know how to cook well,” Klein said. “They just have trouble affording the food.”
A leading priority amid the pandemic has been working with clients to ensure they can maximize their boosted SNAP benefits.
“We’re looking to provide access to food security in a dignified way,” Klein said.
Schenectady Urban Farms is taking a similar approach to building out local food networks.
“Our real focus is on changing the system so we have regional food systems,” said Melissa MacKinnon, director of Schenectady Urban Farms, which runs three sites in the city, including those at Central Park, Hulett Street and Fehr Avenue.
Pivoting toward local food sources and building security is a concept that’s gained traction amid the pandemic, she said, and interest in community gardens has increased, from retired GE workers to working-class city residents.
“It’s stunning to realize how fragile peoples’ lives are now,” MacKinnon said. “How can we be a part of a sustainable system that is a strong one that takes care of people?”
Schenectady Urban Farms is taking baby steps to what MacKinnon refers to as “food sovereignty.”
“We do that first by trying to provide space for people to grow their own food,” MacKinnon said.
Like with Capital Roots, locally-grown produce is distributed to local agencies, including Schenectady Community Ministries, a partnership that will further deepen next year with the completion of a new community center.
The non-profit’s three-pronged approach calls for teaching budgeting skills, how to use fresh produce and lastly, working with farmers — and possibly tilling the soil themselves.
Oftentimes, people leave the pantry with a box stuffed with items they don’t know how to use, said Rafalik, the executive director.
Nutrition and cooking classes will ideally fill an often-missing link that impedes people from taking advantage of farm-fresh food, including fresh herbs that some may find mystifying.
“They’ll have the opportunity to learn more about what to do with the foods they’re receiving at the pantry,” Rafalik said. “Our plan is to help them make the best use of this food.”
Ideally, the connection between Schenectady Urban Farm and Schenectady Community Ministries will further be tightened through a component in which guests can meet farmers, interaction which will ideally spur them into farming at the community plots themselves.
That increased interconnection is also a goal of the Schenectady Foundation.
“We can’t just work in isolation, and have to work across the community in terms of where there are great needs in terms of food security,” Carreau said. “It’s very promising to see all these groups coming together and be more integrated in what we’re all doing.”
But that’s all in the future, past the imminent crisis.
Emanatian, the labor leader, pointed at the uncertainty of winter, when as many as 12 million workers may be knocked off the unemployment rolls; the unclear prospects of a federal relief package and a virus that continues to ravage the state, threatening future shutdowns and layoffs during the holiday season.
“If we can’t eat or feed our children in the richest nation in the history of the world, what does that say about our priorities?” he said.
At Schenectady Community Ministries on Friday, a man wound several bags bulging with food around his arms.
While he owns a vehicle, he told workers, he hasn’t been able to afford car insurance since he lost his job.
Now it just sits in his yard.
With the bags laced around his wrists, he set off down Albany Street.
“Time to use muscle power,” he said.