Demand on food pantries and soup kitchens across eastern New York is at record levels, despite improving economic conditions.
The need to feed people who can't otherwise afford nutritious food is so large, in fact, that to keep up, the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York is building a $2 million addition to its industrial-size Latham distribution center.
The food bank, which serves more than 500 pantries and soup kitchens in a 23-county area from Poughkeepsie to Malone, is on track to distribute 36 million pounds of food this year, setting a new record.
Supermarkets, manufacturers, farmers and retailers all donate food to the food bank.
Large bins of items like acorn squash and lettuce wait in the warehouse for disbursement, along with pallets of packaged goods. Large trucks filled with donated food arrive regularly, and a miscellany of smaller vehicles, from pickup trucks to SUVs, are constantly backing up to loading docks to be filled with community pantry-bound food supplies.
The 62,000-square-foot headquarters and warehouse near the Albany International Airport is adding 5,000 square feet of office space and 2,500 square feet of warehouse space to make its food-handling operation more efficient.
"We've been really jammed up, with (food pantry) agencies backing vehicles up and people walking through," said Lawrence R. Schillinger, chairman of the non-profit organization's board.
Demand is at its highest this time of year because food agencies generally want to provide client families with nice meals for the holidays.
But in the larger picture, demand from those in need hasn't dropped since it spiked in 2009, at the depth of the Great Recession, despite a broad economic recovery. The federal government reported Friday that unemployment in November hit a nine-year low — though economists believe the new jobs aren't paying as well as those that were lost in the historic downturn.
"The poor are always the last to benefit from any improvement and the first to be hurt when there's a downturn," said food bank Executive Director Mark Quandt.
The food bank on Friday hosted U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., as well as the mayors of Albany and Troy, and Colonie Town Supervisor Paula Mahan, in an event aimed at highlighting the region’s nutritional needs.
The politicians sorted through cardboard crates of donated food for expired items, something staff and volunteers do on a daily basis.
Gillibrand said the goal was to emphasize the need for food donations at this time of year.
Speaking to reporters, Gillibrand urged Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state legislators to work out the differences that led Cuomo this week to veto a bill offering a new tax credit to farmers who make direct food donations to food banks and pantries.
"One thing I know is that farmers want the ability to be generous," Gillibrand said.
The Regional Food Bank already gets fresh produce through supermarket donations, and providing more space to display that produce is another driver behind the expansion.
"We're handling a lot more perishable items, due to the great cooperation we have with supermarkets in the area," Schillinger said.
The Capital Region's community food pantries are seeing the same demand as the Regional Food Bank.
Bethesda House in Schenectady offers a food pantry two Tuesdays each month at its State Street center, and in October, it opened a new once-a-week pantry at the Yates Village public housing complex.
"What we have seen on those particular Tuesdays is an increase in demand, and an increase in the number of people within the household who are seeking food items," said Kim Sheppard, executive director of Bethesda House.
The State Street center serves up to 35 families, Sheppard said, while the Yates Village pantry, which opened Oct. 1, immediately began serving 40 households comprising about 150 people.
"Every week, we are completely empty when we close our doors," Sheppard said.
Bethesda House expanded to Yates Village because that section of Schenectady has been identified as a "food desert," where access to grocery stores that sell nutritious food is limited.
"We have noticed a lot of single parents with two to six children in the household," Sheppard said. "We were a little taken aback by it."
She said she tells donors that, while fall volunteer efforts and food drives are wonderful, the demand for food continues throughout the year.
The Fulmont Community Action Program, which operates three pantries in Montgomery County and two in Fulton County, has also seen demand grow, said Aimee Koller, the organization's community services program manager.
"Our numbers are increasing, and I can tell you that they started increasing in about September, as far as the pantries," she said. "We even see more people signing up for holiday baskets."
Across all five pantries, Koller said there were 161 families served in October, compared with 126 in October 2015.
Many of those coming in are new to the community and don't have jobs, she said.
"Our income guidelines are very low," she said. "These are people who are truly in need."
Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.