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Schenectady food pantry a model of success

Schenectady food pantry a model of success

It serves an average of 90 families a day
Schenectady food pantry a model of success
Schenectady Inner City Ministry food pantry.
Photographer: Courtesy Mike Wren/Department of Health

The Schenectady Inner City Ministry’s food pantry was held up as a model of success in improving the dietary and nutritional choices of the needy as state and county officials marked Public Health Week on Wednesday.

SICM’s efforts to redesign its pantry to resemble a grocery store, to offer more healthy options such as fresh fruit and vegetables, and to provide nutrition and cooking education were singled out for praise. The state Department of Health noted poor diet is one of the leading obstacles to good health and said SICM is working to remove that obstacle in Schenectady County.

“I think they chose to come see us because it’s been a very strong partnership with county Health and the state Health Department in several areas,” said the Rev. Phil Grigsby, SICM’s executive director. “We’re seen as a model food pantry by the state.”

State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said his visit to the pantry was a glimpse of public health in action: helping people who can’t afford healthy food or don’t know that they should choose it do both. 

"It’s really important to have this,” Zucker said of the pantry. The recognition offered to SICM on Wednesday was a good way to mark National Public Week, he said, showing “what we in New York are doing to provide people with better health, and improve their quality of life.”

State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker. (Courtesy Mike Wren/Department of Health)

It’s part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s effort to improve public health by looking at the larger picture of what impairs public health: nutrition and medical care, certainly, but also housing, education and even transportation.

The pantry at 839 Albany St. serves an average of 90 families a day, four days a week. Each family can come once a month for regular food and once a week for fresh produce, which doesn’t last as long on the shelf. They can also come to mass distribution day, the last Thursday of the month, when the Regional Food Bank sends a truck loaded with items it is overstocked on, or that are perishable and nearing their expiration dates. 

Recipients have to register annually, prove they live in Schenectady County and document the size of their household.

The pantry was designed to encourage healthy choices, Grigsby said.

“It looks much more like a market than what you think of as a pantry,” he said.

Part of the value of the food pantry cited by state officials during their visit Wednesday relates to health as a whole picture, including social, educational and preventative measures, rather than just health care.

“If you’re hungry, you can’t be healthy,” Grigsby said simply.

Schenectady Inner City Ministry food pantry. (Courtesy Mike Wren/Department of Health)

State Agriculture Commissioner Richard A. Ball noted the impact of the pantry and its offerings during his visit Wednesday. 

"The transformation of the Schenectady Inner City Ministry is a great example of the power of collaboration and how it can make a real difference in the lives of people in need,” he said in a statement. “Fighting hunger and supporting the wellness of all New Yorkers is also a top priority of Governor Cuomo and remains a strong focus at the Department” of Agriculture and Markets.

The pantry is supported in part by a Partnerships to Improve Community Health grant, supplied by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and funneled through Schenectady County government.

The SICM pantry is open to all county residents but the bulk of those who seek assistance are city of Schenectady residents.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey found that the Schenectady County poverty rate was 12.6 percent for all persons and 20.8 percent for those under 18 years old in 2015. 

For the city alone, the poverty rate was 22.8 percent for all residents and 40.1 percent for those under age 18.

“That’s a very bad number to have,” Grigsby said.

There’s no single profile to the people who receive food from the pantry, nor a single solution to their problems.

“Ten people, 10 different reasons why they’re there,” Grigsby said.

Quite a few of them are employed with steady incomes, he said, pointing out a different problem: the modern cost of living.

“We shouldn’t have that term, ‘working poor,’” Grigsby said. “If you’re working, you should be able to feed your family. ‘Working poor’ should be an oxymoron.”

Schenectady Inner City Ministry food pantry. (Courtesy Mike Wren/Department of Health)

Families large and small are the most common visitors to the SICM food pantry, but there are also single people and the disabled. The most common client profile is the smaller family headed by a single parent.

“The average family we see is a mom and two kids,” Grigsby said

To complement its pantry, SICM last year launched Food 4 Schdy, a smartphone app that will find direct the user to the nearest place that accepts food stamps, or food pantry, or meal site.

The SICM pantry tries to address both the educational and financial causes of poor nutrition.

Asked which is the larger problem, Zucker said both are important factors.

“If people are unaware of the risks of their behaviors, they’re going to repeat it,” he said. “Money is always a challenge. Education as well.”

Zucker noted that Schenectady County has a higher-than-average rate of diabetes and heart disease, both of which can be caused or worsened by poor diet. It also has an obesity rate running at 18 percent for children and 32 percent for adults.

So the problem is not always getting enough to eat, but getting the right things to eat.

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