Banking on an end to hunger in Westchester

Nancy Lyons is talking about children’s backpacks and some of the items she and her team put in them — cereal, powdered milk, fruit, vegetables, rice or macaroni. She shows you the surveys expressing the youngsters’ gratitude. Her eyes pool. Or maybe they are merely a reflection of your own.

You wouldn’t think that pancake mix or dried cranberries could bring a tear to the eye, but then, hunger is a moving subject — no less so when it exists amid a landscape of plenty.

Some 200,000 people in Westchester County are what the Food Bank for Westchester describes as “food insecure.” The Food Bank — which recently merged with the Westchester Coalition for the Hungry and Homeless — seeks to alleviate that insecurity through a variety of initiatives that are tailor-made for the 265 agencies and programs it serves.

“Since both organizations started in 1988… the food issue has become more important,” Ellen Lynch, the Food Bank’s president and CEO, says by way of explaining the merger. “What happened in 2008 and ’09 is that a whole section of the workforce dried up and it’s not coming back.”

She’s referring to service jobs that support the wealth sector — gardeners, window washers, waitstaff in country clubs now closed. The affected include those in what are always the most vulnerable demographic groups. About one-third of Westchester’s hungry are children. Some 22 percent are senior citizens.

The beauty of the Food Bank is that it is committed to nutrition that nonetheless considers the needs of different age, ethnic and geographic groups. The BackPacks Program, which provides 1,684 children and families with weekend meals, will substitute canned tuna for peanut butter for nut-allergy sufferers. A truck and municipal housing drop-offs make it easier for those who have a hard time getting around.

The Food Bank — which dispensed 7.2 million pounds of food, or 6.6 million meals in fiscal 2014 — gets its supplies from three main sources, says Toby Pidgeon, vice president of operations. About 25 percent comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the form of shelf-stable products, including dried cranberries and brown rice. About 35 percent, or 353,627 pounds, is surplus food that the Food Bank picks up from retailers like A&P, Sam’s Club and Trader Joe’s, using a custom-designed refrigerated truck donated earlier this year by PepsiCo. The remaining 40 percent, Pidgeon says, comes in the form of food and monetary donations from individuals, corporations, houses of worship and other organizations and initiatives like Scarsdale Middle School and The Yom Kippur Food Drive, which has involved the Jewish community throughout Westchester for more than 20 years.

None of this would be possible without the space and the manpower. The Food Bank’s 37,000-square-foot facility in Elmsford is about double the size of its former Millwood headquarters. There are refrigerated and cold storage areas, along with a clean room, and everywhere floor-to-ceiling shelves laden with fresh produce and canned and boxed goods. The place hums with the sounds of men moving products on dollies and trucks loading and unloading.

Even on a Friday, when most of the food has been distributed for the week, there are always dairy products on hand. On this particular Friday, there are also shelves of Kettle Brand Popcorn as well as 1,000 pounds of rotini that have to be repackaged into one-pound boxes, Lyons, Food Bank’s manager of volunteer services, says. Fortunately, volunteers contribute about 24,000 hours, adding the equivalent of 10 full-timers to a staff of 40.

The Food Bank needs every one of those volunteers. Though it serves 120,000 unduplicated clients, there are still 80,000 people who are not being reached.

But here’s another important statistic, Lynch says: The Food Bank turns every dollar it receives into $4 of food.

That may not be the miracle of the loaves and fishes. But it’s pretty darn close.

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