Molly Nicol, the new chief executive officer at the sprawling and bustling Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York in Latham, likes math.
“I’m a data person,” she said.
And that’s a good thing, because at the Regional Food Bank the numbers are big, and there are many of them.
Consider its size: 23 counties in Northeastern New York; its budget: $17 to $18 million per year; and the number of pounds of food it provides a year: 55 million, to a network of 1,000 agencies.
Before we go any further, some clarification: A food bank solicits, stores and distributes large donations it receives to many member agencies, such as food pantries. Food pantries provide food packages to families who don’t have enough food. A soup kitchen serves individuals in need of a hot meal.
The overarching federal food program is called Feeding America, an alliance of more than 200 food banks. Then there is Feeding New York State. The Regional Food Bank belongs to both, but it is not a government-funded entity, though it administers some government food programs like Nourish New York. It is an independent, 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation overseen by a nonprofit board of volunteer directors.
The organization still has to raise $10 million to $12 million dollars a year. “The community steps up,” said Nicol.
Individuals and corporations make donations. “Regeneron just did the biggest food drive ever,” for example.
There are special fundraising events large and small, from individual birthday donations organized on social media to the recent WRGB-CBS 6 News and Fidelis Care telethon that raised $102,000 for their BackPack program.
The Regional Food Bank accepts food from many sources such as retail stores, warehouses, farms, USDA programs and salvage. For example, “stores don’t want to stock Halloween items after it’s over. But the food is perfectly good,” said Nicol. “Or the label may be on upside down. They can’t sell that.”
Nicol is the successor to Mark Quandt, the organization’s former executive director who retired in June 2021 after 38 years. During his tenure, the Food Bank expanded from serving eight counties to 23, and from 60 agencies to nearly 1,000.
It continues to grow, and successful programs such as BackPack — which provides hungry students with backpacks of nutritious and easy-to-prepare food to bring home on Friday afternoons — still thrive.
The Regional Food Bank holds mass distributions and drive-in pantries, and provides nutrition education and healthy food with the Just Say Yes Fruits and Vegetable Program. They hold pop-up pantries, where a refrigerated truck will go to a pantry without cold storage to provide perishables. They helped seniors during COVID by “bringing the pantry to them,” said Nicol, so that the seniors didn’t have to go far to get food.
In 1990, the Regional Food Bank opened a branch in the lower Hudson Valley to increase donations from food companies and improve services to agencies in that region. It’s called the Food Bank of the Hudson Valley.
The Regional Food Bank, in partnership with the Patroon Land Foundation, manages a large, sustainable farm that supplies the Food Bank and its partnering agencies with diverse, fresh produce to people in need.
Nicol, a Regional Food Bank board member since 2014, acknowledges what works well and is looking forward to implementing new initiatives to meet a growing need.
“Originally, food banks focused on ‘filling people up.’ Now we have moved toward providing more nutritious and healthy food, and are beginning to focus on providing culturally appropriate food.”
A “Just in Time” truck already brings food into communities, now it can play a larger role by bringing in healthy perishables such as dairy, fruits and vegetables.
The Food Farmacy, sponsored by St. Peter’s Health Partners, is a free program that provides food-insecure patients, who also have a chronic disease, with supplies of healthy food. The goal is to teach patients to make healthy choices and educate them on the benefits of eating nutritious food, and provide them with the tools to help manage their chronic conditions through healthy eating. For example, cardiac patients are educated on the benefits of a low-salt diet and provided appropriate food.
Patients must meet participation criteria: They must screen positive for food insecurity. The Food Farmacy program aims to change habits and promote healthy eating.
Nicol would like the Food Bank to play a larger role in that as well; they already bring fresh, healthy food to the patients, employees and the St. Peter’s community.
“People who eat healthier food do not need as much health care,” she said.
The BackPack program can be expanded so that sites can order more healthy food options to supplement the nonperishables in the students’ backpacks.
The Food Bank is building a new, 40,000-square-foot warehouse in Orange County to replace the old one it has outgrown.
“We’re working on a new logistics model that will allow us to receive large donations in two shipments,” Nicol said.
Currently, the Latham Food Bank drives food, a lot of it, to the Hudson Valley location. “Fifty-seven percent of their food has to come from the Latham location. And that truck comes back empty,” she added, a waste of resources.
Feeding America and the USDA have already agreed to deliver shipments to both locations, meaning no more gasoline used to transfer food and no more empty trucks. Hopefully, other sources of donations will come on board with the idea.
Some of our neighbors working several part-time jobs who have a cellphone are not able to visit a pantry during the normal hours of operation. They may soon be able to use an app to look at food pantry inventory online and “order direct.” The program, in its pilot phase, has the potential to make life a lot easier for a family who is food-insecure and has little time to shop.
“We have challenges with boxing and delivering food,” said Nicol. “Will the pantry deliver it like Instacart, or will there be pickup at a central location, like a library?”
The MealConnect app from Feeding America connects extra food from restaurants and caterers to food banks that can steer the donations to member agencies and pantries. It is the first nationwide food rescue and donation app.
How does the Regional Food Bank identify places of need in the region?
“Look at my hands,” said Nicol, holding them up with fingers apart. Each finger represented a service in place for the food-insecure. She put one hand across the other. “See those spaces? Those are gaps.”
Don Levy and the Siena Research Institute are community partners who have helped identify those gaps, between food insecurity data and the existing food delivery programs, to help find appropriate solutions to address them.
“We are so grateful for their help as we couldn’t have done this work without their support,” said Nicol.
From the thousands of volunteers who come to the Regional Food Bank to repack and sort, and their counterparts who help out at the farm, to the corporate partners that have the ability to make generous donations, the entire community comes together to make the Regional Food Bank run.
“We have the challenge of food insecurity,” said Nicol, “and we need partners.”
Regional Food Bank
Mission: The mission of the Regional Food Bank is to alleviate hunger and prevent food waste.
Areas served: The Regional Food Bank serves 23 counties including Albany, Clinton, Columbia, Delaware, Dutchess, Essex, Franklin, Fulton, Greene, Hamilton, Montgomery, Orange, Otsego, Putnam, Rensselaer, Rockland, Saratoga, Schenectady, Schoharie, Sullivan, Ulster, Warren and Washington.
Quote from CEO: “Don’t just take my photo, show our employees and the volunteers who are dedicated to our mission.” — Molly Nicol