Before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, Tompkins and Cortland counties were already facing a long-standing food insecurity crisis. Hunger can lead to reduced cognitive development and educational attainment in children, as well as higher rates of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease, reduced earnings, and premature mortality.
According to FeedingAmerica.org, approximately 18% of people in Tompkins and Cortland counties were food insecure in 2017, the latest year for which data is available.
There are many community organizations working to provide support to families, but the demand outpaces their ability to supply food. For example, the Food Bank of the Southern Tier, which provides over one million meals to Tompkins County residents annually, is still only able to meet less than half of the need. According to FeedingAmerica.org, there is an $11 million annual shortfall in order to provide for everyone in Tompkins and Cortland Counties. ($1.2 billion for the whole state).
If families across the region were facing this imbalance when the overall economy was stable and unemployment was relatively low, imagine how COVID-19 has magnified this crisis.
An emergency food task force emerges in Tompkins County to address COVID-19
In mid-March, I connected with a group of farmers and community organizers — Rafael Aponte, Dr. Rachel Bezner Kerr, and Kirby Edmonds, in a grassroots effort to mitigate the growing local food crisis. The existence of enough food was not the problem. The first problem was getting the food to the growing number of people who needed it without increasing anyone’s risk of contracting COVID-19. The second problem was supporting local farmers who had suddenly lost markets as restaurants, schools, and cafes closed their doors.
An initial meeting took place with 65 people representing a wide range of stakeholders in the food system. As a result, the Tompkins County Covid-19 Food Task Force was created and working groups emerged to address three critical areas of need: production, distribution, and health.
An emergency food hub is established
The task force established an emergency food hub in the former GreenStar Space thanks to the generosity of the GreenStar Cooperative, and later by its current owners, the City Harbor group.
The coordinated work of the Task Force and the Emergency Food Hub has highlighted the power of combining our efforts and resources. In the first week, we accomplished:
Packing and delivering 600 boxes of food from the GreenStar’s The Space by volunteers with the Food Bank of the Southern Tier;
Packing and delivering 10,000 masks with Spanish inserts and hand sanitizer for delivery to farms and farmworkers in the region through the NYS Department of Agriculture, Cornell Cooperative Extension, and the Cornell Farmworker Program;
Coordinating $2000 worth of locally-farmed fruits and vegetables from Headwater Food Hub to be distributed to families in need through the Ithaca City School District.
Last week, Engaged Cornell in partnership with Cornell Cooperative Extension funded a full-time temporary coordinator position, filled by local food system expert Holly Payne to take over the extensive effort previously led by our core group of volunteers.
Long-term solutions inspired by COVID-19 state actions
On April 27th, Governor Cuomo announced $25 million in funding to support the Nourish New York initiative. Through this program, the state purchases produce from upstate farms and distributes it to communities and households in greatest need through the state network of food banks. If made permanent, Nourish NY could serve as the core for a statewide fight to eradicate hunger. To make the initiative cost-effective, we must capitalize on community programs and social service programs that already exist, and incentivize coordination.
The Taskforce and food hub created in Tompkins County, as well as similar models operating in other counties like Schenectady, demonstrate that a comprehensive coordinated effort can address food insecurity in our community effectively, efficiently, and equitably with the help of state aid.
Food insecurity is a deep-rooted and long-standing issue in our community. Investments in nutrition are a smart way to reduce long term poverty and dependency on social services, lessening the burden on the healthcare system and programs like Medicaid, and ultimately saving taxpayers’ dollars while ensuring that no one in our community goes hungry.
Tompkins County Legislature
Candidate for the NY State Assembly 125th