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New effort launched in Schenectady County to combat food insecurity

New York Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara and local officials on the steps of Schenectady City Hall on August 10, 2022.
Alexander Babbie
New York Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara and local officials on the steps of Schenectady City Hall on August 10, 2022.

Schenectady County officials have launched an effort to combat food insecurity.

The Schenectady County Food Council is a collaboration of area organizations working to increase food security. Speaking Thursday in front of Schenectady City Hall, Democratic Mayor Gary McCarthy says the efforts will reduce a 10.3 percent food insecurity rate in the county, nearly 16 percent among children — double the national average.

“You want people to be able to get basic nourishment, some of the basic things in life. And so, we're here today to make sure that we're able to deliver that, to make it happen, and make everyone in Schenectady feel secure. And so that they have a level of dignity that they can enjoy the good things that are happening within our community.”

Christy Milligan, director of grants and community programs at the Schenectady Foundation, says the effort will directly tackle food insecurity. It’s being supported with $600,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funding.

“This is really our community-wide, countywide effort to make sure that we're really digging into the issues of why food insecurity exists in Schenectady County, and making sure that we're figuring out the best, strongest, most effective ways to make sure that our county is taken care of," Milligan said.

State Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Schenectady and Montgomery Counties and a member of the Council’s steering board, says collaboration is key.

“This initiative brings together leaders from various organizations, elected officials like myself, and a diverse range of partners all uniting under a common mission to enhance food security here in the city of Schenectady and across Schenectady County," Santabarbara said.

Santabarbara says the Council’s work will especially help children.

“It's disheartening to witness communities like this, grappling with food insecurity, which translates into far too many individuals struggling to access food, access to nourishment they require. The situation becomes even more troubling when we focus on children in our community," Santabarbara said.

Santabarbara says community participation is needed.

“This is an open invitation to every resident, regardless of background or experience to contribute their voice, their ideas and, energy to this pivotal effort. By uniting as a cohesive community, we have the power to redefine compassion and come together to fulfill the most basic of human needs," Santabarbara said.

Natasha Pernicka, CEO of The Food Pantries for the Capital District, says the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated residents’ struggles.

“We are seeing food pantries from around the state and locally reporting over 100% increases of people seeking assistance in the past year. According to Feeding America, there's over 14,000 people in Schenectady County that are considered food insecure,” Pernicka said.

Pernicka says her organization is referring more people to food pantries this year, about a 20 percent increase.

Amaury Tañón-Santos, Executive Director of Schenectady Community Ministries, says access to healthy food is key.

“Reliable and consistent food access is the number one barrier in food insecurity, Reliable transportation, consistent food quality, religious and cultural practices, immediate need and consistent resourcing are all challenges," Tañón-Santos said.

Adine Viscusci, who serves on the Board of Directors of the Electric City Food Co-Op, which aims to open a community-owned grocery store in Schenectady this year, says the Food Council is learning from others like it.

“We're joining actually 15 other food councils that exist just in upstate New York alone. So there's this bubbling that's come up since COVID. Were just one food council of 16 that are meeting in Syracuse next week, to learn from each other some of these food councils are a little bit more advanced than ours, they started a few years ago.

Viscusi says $4 million in funding for the co-op from the city and county are a start, but $6 million would be ideal to establish a new local grocery store.

Viscusi says the Food Council is a wide-ranging collaboration.

“We have 55 different organizations, I mean, ranging from the food bank, to the United Way to the food pantries to SICM to the Schenectady City School District," Viscusi says.

But despite that, Viscusi says, even more needs to be done.

“There's got to be more public response to the inequities in our food system. And it's really about food justice, and who gets to eat, who gets a place at the table," Viscusi says.

Viscusi points out that minority neighborhoods often lack the same food options as wealthier, whiter neighborhoods.

“This is really, you know, we don't like to say a food desert, because it's really not a desert. A desert is a naturally occurring ecosystem in the world. This is more like food apartheid. This is the food system working exactly as it was designed. It's white middle class people who have cars who can afford you know, disposable income to get their food," Viscusi says.

Mona Golub is vice president of public relations and consumer services for Northeast Grocery, the combined Price Chopper/Market 32 and Tops, as well as a council steering board member. She says the grocery chain takes an active role in addressing food insecurity.

“We’ve been working in fresh recovery for almost a decade now, with all 12 of the regional Feeding America food banks that are in our marketing areas,” Golub says.

Golub says the company contributes as much as they can.

“We work through food banks, we work through food pantries, there’s fundraising, there’s Foodraising, and then there’s Opportunity Distribute,” Golub says.

Milligan, with the Schenectady Foundation, invites people who live or work in Schenectady to make their voices heard on the matter.

“The next way that you can learn more about the Food Council is coming to an event that we're hosting at the Karen B. Johnson Library, it's going to be on Wednesday, August 23rd at 6 p.m. we're going to be showing a short clip of a film called “A Place At The Table,” which really is gonna get us all on the same page as to what food insecurity issues really are, and get the conversation started,” Milligan says.

There’s also the Farmers Market, which runs every Thursday from May until November 1 from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Kathy Shear, who manages the market, says it’s a good place for people in need to shop.

“Right now, we're offering a special deal with food stamps that people can get a $2 coupon for every $2 in food stamps that they take off of their card. So it’s basically doubling their money. And it's right here, so they don't have to go that far to go shopping. So it is helping. And we also have had Kathy Albert from the Senior and Long-Term Care, handing out $25 booklets of coupons for low-income seniors.”

More information about the Food Council can be found here.

A 2022 Siena College graduate, Alexander began his journalism career as a sports writer for Siena College's student paper The Promethean, and as a host for Siena's school radio station, WVCR-FM "The Saint." A Cubs fan, Alexander hosts the morning Sports Report in addition to producing Morning Edition. You can hear the sports reports over-the-air at 6:19 and 7:19 AM, and online on WAMC.org. He also speaks Spanish as a second language. To reach him, email ababbie@wamc.org, or call (518)-465-5233 x 190. You can also find him on Twitter/X: @ABabbieWAMC.