Albany

Heaping Helpings: Nonprofit Feed Albany pivots from restaurant employees to packaged meals for anyone in need

SUNY Schenectady Culinary Arts majors Evette Maisonette and Panagiota Giakoumis preparing meals for Feed Albany.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
SUNY Schenectady Culinary Arts majors Evette Maisonette and Panagiota Giakoumis preparing meals for Feed Albany.

COVID-19 may be on its way out but Feed Albany, a nonprofit formed to address pandemic-related food insecurity, plans to stay.

What began more than a year ago as an initiative to feed out-of-work Albany restaurant personnel has grown into an organization that strives to provide high-quality packaged meals to any Capital Region resident in need.

Last March, when restaurants shut down as part of the effort to control COVID, Albany restaurateur Dominick Purnomo, co-owner of Yono’s and dp An American Brasserie, quickly realized the shutdowns would lead to layoffs — and in turn, food insecurity.

“Restaurant workers, especially ones that are handed cash tips every night, their financial planning is not necessarily the best,” Purnomo explained. “So people tend to live week to week or month to month, or sometimes even night to night, based on their tipped wages.”

EARLY EFFORTS
Albany restaurants shut down right before the 2020 NCAA men’s basketball tournament was slated to take place at the Times Union Center. Overloaded with food purchased for what turned out to be a non-event and intent on assisting his 50-plus employees, Purnomo and some helpers cooked and packaged to-go meals for his staff. One week later, he, his staff and other volunteers began to cook and package meals for all Albany restaurant workers in need.

As other segments of the economy shut down, the group realized it wasn’t just restaurant workers who were in trouble.

They shifted their operation to feed whoever was hungry.

Yono’s and dp An American Brasserie, both located in downtown Albany’s Hampton Inn and Suites, became prep and distribution sites for free to-go meals. Volunteers also began delivering meals to those who couldn’t get to the pickup site.

“Naively we thought, well, this is for two, three or four weeks and then our lives will go back to normal, and everything will be just fine. And here we are in week 53,” Purnomo said during an interview in late March.

With need on the rise, Purnomo and other community leaders banded together to make Feed Albany a registered nonprofit.

A volunteer board of directors was assembled, with Purnomo as president. Members solicited donations, sponsorships and grant funding. Two part-time employees were hired and volunteers from all walks of life stepped up to assist.

According to Purnomo, when need was at its greatest, Feed Albany gave away about 1,000 meals each day. On their busiest day, approximately 4,000 meals were distributed. During their busiest week, 7,000 meals went out the door.

“I think at one point we had 26 drivers a day on the road, dropping off meals at the peak of everything,” Purnomo recalled.

NEED STILL GREAT
Demand has eased somewhat as the economy has begun to improve, but Feed Albany still cooks and distributes between 2,000 and 3,500 meals a week, Purnomo estimated.

Meal offerings vary depending on food donations, but recipients can expect chef-prepared entrees such as meatloaf, mashed potatoes and local vegetables; mac and cheese; gumbo; or curry with mussels and shrimp.

Purnomo said Feed Albany works to ensure that people eat with dignity. “It’s restaurant food that any of our restaurants would be proud to put on a plate. We’re just putting it in plastic containers. The food tastes as good as we would want it to be in a dining room where we’re charging $25 or $30 for it.”

JOINING FORCES
Feed Albany now partners with multiple organizations, helping them distribute meals to those in need. One such initiative is Free Food Fridge Albany, which stocks outdoor refrigerators in Albany and Troy with fresh food that’s free for the taking.

Feed Albany also assists with a drive-thru food pantry held in cooperation with Albany’s KIPP public charter schools and the USDA. Each week, the effort distributes 1,342 food boxes, at 36 pounds each, which contain meat, dairy products, fruits and vegetables — the equivalent of 50,000 meals a week, Purnomo estimated.

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“As a ballpark number, we’ve done about half a million meals between that and working with food pantries back in the early part [of the pandemic]. They closed the food pantries because of COVID, so we had a partnership with them where we were delivering our cooked meals along with their food pantry items,” Purnomo said.

In addition, SUNY Schenectady’s culinary department partners with Feed Albany. Students cook and package about 500 meals a week to distribute free of charge in Schenectady County. In the process, students learn skills that will serve them well in the culinary field.

“Not only are these kids going to learn culinary skills, but they’re going to learn that hospitality isn’t just something that takes place in the dining room,” Purnomo said. “Hospitality is a way of life. It’s a culture. What we’re doing with Feed Albany is the same thing we do here at the restaurant. We’re not wearing suits, standing underneath a crystal chandelier, pouring expensive champagne, but we’re taking care of people and we’re hopefully leaving them better than when they found us. And to me, that’s the root of hospitality.”

FOCUS SHIFTS
Needs are shifting as the pandemic wanes and businesses reopen, and Feed Albany is adapting to keep pace. Albany County Legislator Matthew Peter is replacing Purnomo as Feed Albany’s president for the organization’s second year in operation.

The nonprofit is also working to expand its footprint, which already has grown to reach beyond Albany to Schenectady, Rensselaer and Saratoga counties.

“As far as the pandemic goes, it truly exposed the economic gaps between people, and those who were barely hanging on have been pushed to an extreme, which is why we need to really reevaluate and see how we can help,” said Peter.

Rental space is being sought for Feed Albany’s headquarters and a fundraising campaign has been initiated. Organizers hope it will generate $25,000 to create a commercial kitchen at the new site.

The board of directors is expanding to include people with experience working in finance; farmers; people who work with students; and others who can help the organization recognize and address evolving community needs.

Many people who live with food insecurity continue to slip through the cracks, Purnomo said. He recalled receiving a letter from a 76-year-old former restaurant worker during week 46 of Feed Albany’s operation. The man said in his letter that he had no family and struggled to get food.

“I read this letter and I had tears dripping down my eyes, thinking, ‘This poor man. We’ve been here for almost a year at this point and he’s just learning about us now,’ ” Purnomo recounted. “Here we are, the wealthiest nation in the world, and here’s a 76-year-old man who goes to bed hungry most nights. … That’s just a perfect example of somebody who we could have been helping all along. And what kills me [is] that there’s probably hundreds if not thousands of other people in our community we can’t get to.”

Peter agreed. “I think there is a place for high-quality meals delivered for free to individuals [living with] food insecurity and I don’t think that’s going away. There are a lot of people suffering in silence. There are a lot of people who feel they can’t reach out to anyone.”

Get a meal
People in need of food can pick up a free meal at dp An American Brasserie, 25 Chapel St. in Albany, on Wednesdays between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m.

To request meal delivery, visit feedalbany.com and fill out an online form or call 518-261-2754.

Fund future meals
Monetary donations to Feed Albany can be made at feedalbany.com, or checks can be mailed to Feed Albany, P.O. Box 11624, Albany NY, 12211

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Categories: Food, Heaping Helpings, Life and Arts

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