Last week, my family got a very small taste of what it would be like to live with food instability.
But not really.
Our refrigerator was on the frizz for a week because of some delays with repairs. For one week, my family had no reliable source of refrigeration. We used the snow and the sporadic cold of this very mild winter to keep our milk and produce fresh.
For a few days, it was like camping. But after a while, it was no fun having to go out into the snow and cold every time a member of the family wanted a drink of orange juice
or a pat of butter.
It was demeaning and demoralizing to live like this. Milk and eggs spoiled. Lots of food had to be tossed. As bad as it was, I realized this was for my family a temporary problem.
After all, we still had money. We could keep our food stability because we could – and did- go out for every meal for a few days.
But for many in Monroe County, food instability is a very real thing.
In Monroe County, where Kodak is bankrupt and has for the last decade shed thousands of blue and white collar jobs, food instability is increasing.
Last year, The Children’s Agenda in a report called Decade in Decline that found that
- Children attending pre-K classes are on the rise
- 96 percent of the county’s children have health insurance
- the number of children found with high levels of lead in their blood dropped by 80 percent
- 22 percent of the county’s children live in poverty.
- 44 percent of children in Monroe county in grades K-6 receive free and reduced lunch in public schools
- 2,494 families in the county were placed in homeless shelters in 2009, up from 1,566 in 1999
There are many in our midst who live with real food instability every day. Kids who live in homes where they may not get much on the weekends after receving food assistance at school all week.
This week, over Februrary break, my kids and I got a better understanding of what it takes to keep people out of food instability and on the road to self sufficiency by volunteering at a vast food distribution center serving the poor by distributing this food to hundreds of food pantries within 10 counties in Western New York.
Together with a few of their friends, we worked a shift at Rochester’s Foodlink in their brand new facility in the northwest part of the city. Foodlink is a food distribution center that provides food and meal assistance to agencies and food pantries in 10 counties in Western New York. The new location moved operations from four floors in a warehouse near Corn Hill to one on Mt. Read Blvd. No longer did millions of pounds of food need to be carted up and down in a 100-year-old elevator. Just across the highway from Foodlink’s new digs are the huge but emptying buildings and factories of Kodak, the company that was once the backbone of our city.
Foodlink is a great place to volunteer. In fact, thousands of people in Rochester volunteer each year to help end food instability within the 10 county area that Foodlink services. In fact, it is so good at the efficient way it mobilizes its volunteers to distribute food to the hungry and to lead the hungry and poor onto paths of nutritious self-reliance, it was named by the New York State Commission for National and Community Service to:
- help individual volunteers find service opportunities with local non-profit agencies within the region;
- support the development of an on-line statewide network of volunteer opportunities;
- measure the local impact of volunteer activity to share through a formal New York-specific study;
- deliver training and technical assistance to support local volunteer organization
This is my second time volunteering at Foodlink with my kids. The volunteer coordinators are friendly and have a great hands-on training program to teach volunteers like us how to sort through and rescue the many truckloads of food donations they receive from private and corporate donors like Wegmans Food Markets.
Some rules on sorting food:
- Food that has an expiration date that is older than six months must be disposed.
- Cans with bulges or dents with sharp edges or any dents around seams or lids must be disposed.
- No baby food can be accepted. Not even sealed and labeled. It was painful to put baby food jars and formula on the discard pile. But we were assured that is why the state has a WIC (women, infants and children) program to assist mothers with young babies.
- Nonperishable food bags with tears in an inner plastic lining must be disposed.
Finally, volunteers must be at least eight years old. This qualified my youngest, who loves sorting things in general and said he “had the best time and could sort food all day long”.
My older kids and their friends were having a good time too. How fun is taking off food from a moving conveyor belt, after all?
The hardest item I had to put on the discard pile was a torn 20 pound bag of sushi-grade rice. I knew that had to be expensive and it was probably okay. But I knew that sushi rice is not cheap and it nearly killed me to have to toss it.
“Believe me, it kills us all the time, we see food like this all the time we have to toss,” one of the workers told me.
But not all this really goes to waste. Much of the canned food is taken from its metal containers and composted and used at local farms. Food waste is also used by another local business and converted into clean-burning ethanol.
How close are we to food instability? The news of Kodak’s demise make all of us here in Rochester a bit shaky.
As a friend and I sorted food, she told me some very hard news. Within that impersonal number of 3,000 to 4,000 people to lose their jobs in the latest round of Kodak layoffs was her boyfriend. He spent most of his adult life working there.
Suddenly, the joyful energy I was feeling felt as crushed as some of the many dented cans we were tossing away.