TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. –– Foodnet Meals On Wheels, an organization dedicated to providing meals and nutritional services to older adults and other people in need in Tompkins County, has a new leader at its helm –– Board Member Aly Evans began her new position as ED on Monday.

Evans’ predecessor, Jessica Gosa, left the job on July 9, after announcing in June she would be leaving following a more than four and a half year tenure, citing family as her reason for departing.

Hiring Evans after just a month, David Dier, chair of Foodnet, said it was necessary to speed up the hiring process to ensure the organization’s health after a surge of need during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dier added that although he felt it was not feasible to wait months for a candidate Evans, already part of Foodnet was the best candidate regardless.

“Everybody stepped up,” Dier said, “and I still feel at the end of the day that if we took four months to do this search, we wouldn’t have a better candidate.” 

Evans, the former Executive Director of the not-for-profit Family Reading Partnership, moved to Ithaca eight years ago, and officially joined the Foodnet board in January, helping with personnel and education. While in Ithaca, she served on the boards of the Family Reading Partnership, Ithaca Underground, Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club.

On top of her not-for-profit experience, “Aly brings enthusiasm, leadership, and a passion for Foodnet’s mission to provide meals and critical nutrition services, and I am confident that the organization will be well-positioned for success under her leadership,” Gosa said in a press release sent out on June 25.

Evans describes herself as a “fun-loving, dedicated, community-minded collaborator.” She said that reaching out to other organizations, hearing what ideas they might have for helping the community and collaborating with them would benefit the community.

“It’s not just ‘we decided we have an idea of a program we want to serve and we’re just going to implement it,'” Evans said. “Let’s just work together to do better work for everybody in collaboration. That’s the community-minded part.”

Dier considers Evans’ ability to forge connections in the community to be her most important contribution to Foodnet’s mission since the organization relies on the help of people in the community.

“It’s just very logical to me that if I know someone, I have a better chance to communicate better with them and get my point across, and hopefully succeed in having them fund us or volunteer for us or whatever,” Dier said.

Now is a critical time for Foodnet –– the organization saw a record increase of operations over the last year. In 2020, it served 737 clients, delivered a total of 193,670 meals and provided 486 hours of nutritional counseling, which is higher than ever for Foodnet.

“During a pandemic, the organization was able to increase the number of people that they served, and continue with operations after all the pivots that had to happen, with offices closing, just continuing the focus on the mission,” Evans said. “That, to me, was very important.”

And like many other businesses and nonprofits, the pandemic forced Foodnet to change the way they do things –– having to quickly implement safety measures, such as requiring masks, rearranging the office for social distancing, installing plexiglass barriers and checking temperatures, with as little interruption for those in need. Foodnet could no longer deliver meals into residents’ homes, even for residents with limited mobility, but instead had to drop meals at the doors and call residents that the meals had arrived. Foodnet stopped offering congregate meal programs, which served groups of residents, in lieu of delivering meals.

Evans said that as restrictions loosen, some programs will resume, as Foodnet recently resumed in-home delivery. Nevertheless, Evans said some of Foodnet’s safety precautions, such as requiring volunteers and staff to wear masks around the vulnerable population Foodnet serves, as well as asking people not to come to the office if they are sick, will likely be permanent.

“No one wants anyone to get sick,” Evans said, “so those things will probably be with us for quite a while.”

Evans said she would focus much of her energy on resource development, both financial and human resources. This includes obtaining donations, meeting with donors and writing grants to fund Foodnet, as well as supporting those who work for Foodnet.

“Everything’s moving well, it’s not like we need to change anything, because it’s working,” Evans said.

Dier expressed a desire to hire a development director by the end of the year, who would assist Evans by helping her gain access to donors, allowing her to focus on her duties as executive director. He said Gosa had fulfilled the development director’s responsibilities well, but that it is no longer possible for the executive director to both do development work and lead Foodnet.

“Fortunately, we’re a growing organization,” Dier said, “and that’s a good thing, but we’re at the point now where we need to take a step up from where we’re at.”

Because Tompkins County has an aging population, resulting in more people becoming eligible for Meals on Wheels, and food insecurity continues to impact not only Ithacans but Americans at a high rate, it seems the demand for Foodnet’s services will continue to grow

“We’re not doing a good enough job,” Dier said, “Nobody should be going hungry. We’re missing the point somewhere.”

And Evans knows that everyone needs to eat, which is why she does her utmost to fight hunger. In the past, her efforts included bringing banana bread to people and inviting people into her home to eat, and now, they also include leading Foodnet.

“Food is life,” she said, “so  to me, that’s part of who I am and the fact that so many people don’t have access, when so many people do have access, in a nation of our size and a nation of our scope and a nation of our wealth, there are a lot of people who don’t have access, and that is something I have to work towards.”