I met Jack Montague some time ago at the 5th Annual Culinary Bounty Harvest Dinner. And, I learned a lot that night about something called Foodlink. A lot. So, I asked him to do an interview and he was generous enough to do one. And, if you read all the way down, you can learn about a September 20 eating opportunity!
Bibliochef: I learned from you at dinner that you are connected Foodlink. Could you tell readers a bit about what that is, how you came to be involved with the organization and what your role is? (Yep, three questions disguised as one!)
Jack: And it was a great dinner and great company! Foodlink [editorial insert -- ok, I am nt going to put the link in every time we say this -- just the first time in any comment, ok?) is the regional Feeding America food bank located in Rochester, NY. Feeding America is a network of 200+ food banks that are located all around the USA. Foodlink’s mission is to fight hunger in its 10 county service area. Without getting TMI, Foodlink’s 10 county service area includes: Orleans, Monroe, Wayne, Genesee, Wyoming, Allegheny, Livingston, Seneca, Ontario and Yates Counties. Last year Foodlink provided 11 million pounds of food to fight hunger in these counties.
So that is what Foodlink is; how I came to be involved was through the Letter Carrier Food Drive. I think most of your readers know about the annual collection of food by letter carriers. It was during this activity nearly 20 years ago that I became aware of Foodlink and its mission (visit www.foodlinkny.org for more information). There are two things that I have been concerned with all my life: hunger and literacy. Foodlink certainly provided an avenue for me to get involved in hunger issues.
Ah yes, my role at Foodlink. Well that varies completely. Now that I am retired, I can provide whatever skills and expertise I have accumulated over the years to assist Foodlink. This can be making contact with a prospective donor and explaining the mission of Foodlink as I am here, or, finding local sources of food, or…anything else.
One thing I would like to ask your readers, what is the face of hunger they see? To me it is the laid off worker who has been doing everything right and now finds him or herself unable to pay the rent, the car payment, etc. Often times, the difficult decision is made to keep a roof over your head, to keep the car because you are going to need it when a new job is found, with no money left to purchase adequate, nutritious food. Foodlink provides the help necessary to get the person back on their feet. There are some very interesting local statistics on hunger that your readers can find on Foodlink’s web site. Every 4 years a complete study is undertaken—“Hunger at Home”-- so that we can better understand needs within our community. All of the results from this past year are available on our web site.
Bibliochef: I hope readers will use the comment function on the blog to answer you on the face of hunger they see. . . . you certainly made me think about where and when -- and who -- I see as hungry. I love the tag line Foodlink uses – Fighting Waste, Fighting Want. Can you talk a bit about how both aims are accomplished by Foodlink and, perhaps, what makes food “unsalable but safe”?
Jack: And it was a great tag line. I still use it from time to time. It was the tag line that we had in the 90’s until we adopted “Abundance Shared.” But let’s use the tag line “fighting waste, fighting want” because I do think it accurately describes what Foodlink does.
First, let me make the distinction between a food bank like Foodlink and the local food pantry you would find in a church. While the public uses the terms food bank and food pantry interchangeably they are really not. It is a matter of several things being different: 1) a food bank is authorized/certified by Feeding America and has a defined service area; 2) the size of the organization and their assets are dramatically different—picture a closet for food storage versus 100,000 square feet of warehouse and a fleet of refrigerated trucks; 3) the food pantry is provided food by Foodlink in a relationship similar to a “wholesaler (Foodlink) and a retailer (pantry, soup kitchen, shelter, etc).”
So how does Foodlink provide food to the 450+ food pantries and other agencies it services? Well, it goes to food producers and groceries in its service area and solicits donations. Its parent organization also solicits donations from large corporate producers. Typically, the producer does not have time or other resources to deposit the donated product at Foodlink’s door; so Foodlink uses its fleet of trucks to pick up the donated food and bring it back to the Foodlink warehouse where a weekly inventory of available product is sent to the 450+ agencies that Foodlink supports. Those agencies order from a Foodlink “shopping list” and food is delivered outside of Monroe County to those agencies via Foodlink’s trucks. Agencies within Monroe County pick up directly from our warehouse, and have the option of hand-picking items from our “shop-through” area.
Ever wonder where those dented cans you see in the grocery store go? Yep, that would be to Foodlink. And speaking of grocery stores let me put in an unabashed plug for our largest food donor: Wegmans. We have had a 30+ year partnership with Wegmans and we heartily thank them for their support of Foodlink. We simply would not be who we are without them.
So, a dented can begins to get at the unsalable issue. When these dented cans come to Foodlink they are inspected to see if they are safe. Essentially, have any of the contents of the can been exposed, how deep is the dent, etc. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but while our good friends in NYS Ag and Markets, who inspect Foodlink for safe operations, would shudder at this definition I think it gives the reader a picture.
Another aspect of unsalable but safe is errors in the production process—e.g., too much oregano in the sauce, too much cinnamon in the applesauce. To the credit of food producers, this doesn’t happen all that much anymore. Producers’ quality control activities have really improved over the years. But when it does, producers will often donate case product to Foodlink, as they want to keep a consistent product in the marketplace.
And, the final aspect of unsalable but safe is the product simply did not appeal to the consumer. What to do with that product? Yep, Foodlink would be a good candidate. Perhaps your readers can envision walking through a shopping area and seeing a product and saying to themselves who would buy that? Candied garlic is my absolute favorite example.
So, unsalable but safe can be product damaged in handling, improperly produced product, overproduced product, or products that do not appeal to consumers for purchase.
Bibliochef: Wow. Now I know a lot more! Thanks. I know that Foodlink’s programs extend beyond the food bank per se, including Freshwise Farm and Freshwise Kitchen. What role do these have and how did they come into existence?
One of the largest issues Foodlink contends with everyday is perishable food donated to Foodlink that has very few days left before it becomes spoiled or unfit for human consumption. How to fight that waste? Picture produce that is on its last legs and I think you begin to see how we came to a decision to begin our meal production operations. We thought if we could blanche the produce or in some way preserve it we could “fight waste, fight want.” We were fortunate to have a small kitchen donated to us at the time and we began to blanche, boil etc to preserve food. Well, we found that making meals was not a far stretch from some food preservation techniques. If readers look at the Kids Cafe information on the Foodlink web site they will see where we went with meal production. We now do roughly 2500 meals a day for school, after school programs and assorted activities. Perhaps one of your readers sees as opportunity for another Kids Cafe site?
Freshwise Farm had a similar origin. How do you get more nutritious product into the meals and the food bank? Well, you can grow your own year round is one answer. Freshwise Farms is a year round, hydroponic grower of the finest greens ever tasted—right in Penfield, NY. It also began Foodlink’s initiatives addressing the causes of hunger. For years Foodlink had known that the real cause of hunger is a joblessness and poverty. You can certainly see that in the hunger study. Foodlink had been doing its part by hiring people who needed another chance or who needed to learn skills. How to do more of that as well as spur the economic activity to create jobs? The farm begins to get at addressing some causal activity but your next question furthers that even more.
Bibliochef: And what about a “fulfillment center.” This is the most mysterious to me. Can you explain it?
Jack: How does a farmer or producer get product to market? Well, it has to be transported from the farm to the market, or, staged in a freezer/cooler/warehouse until demand develops? What resources are available for a farmer to do this? Well, Foodlink has millions of dollars in assets and using those assets just for charitable purposes is good but using those assets for job creation begins to get at the root cause of hunger. We hope that by assisting farmers and producers in our service area to get their products to market it gives them the economic vibrancy to hire more people and/or spend more money in the local economy. Your readers who are known as “localvores” can explain more about money moving in the local economy and the vibrancy it creates.
Picture a refrigerated Foodlink truck leaving the Foodlink warehouse full for delivery in its 10 county area and returning empty. Picture the Foodlink warehouse sitting just a mile or so from Wegman’s major distribution hub. Picture warehouse space, cooler and freezer space being available on a temporary basis and you have the perfect solution to a farmer who has a problem getting his product to the Wegman’s distribution center. Think about a farmers normal work schedule and most food distribution operations. One works during the day and one works at night creating an inherent problem. Foodlink solves that problem by picking up product at the farm in the afternoon, bringing it back to Foodlink and delivering the product that evening to Wegman’s at the designated time. A fee for service activity that provides additional funds for Foodlink to buy food for the needy and a resource for the farmer/producer to service their customer more efficiently…and you address the cause of hunger by creating economic activity that eventually creates a job.
Bibliochef: Hmmm. I see how this might be relevant to my next question. The Foodlink site says you help about 94,000 people annually. Is this a pretty stable number – and what does that say, do you think, about the ways we are – or are not – addressing root causes of poverty and hunger in the US and in our region?
Jack: Actually, our most recent study indicates that we serve 125,000 individuals annually---a 32% increase from just 4 years ago. And no, it really isn’t a stable number. First the aggregate number has increased dramatically with the change in economic conditions. Are there more hungry people with a 10% unemployment rate than a 5% rate? Absolutely. Are they the same people that are hungry? No-not always. One of the things that jumps at me when I read “Hunger at Home,” the Hunger in America study conducted in 2010, is the precariousness of the working poor. They are so close to the edge that any misfortune can send them spiraling downward; a sick family member, a costly repair, high utilities, etc. [For the studies, organized as national, NY state, and local information, click here.]
How many of your readers have heard economists say we are at full employment at 4 or 5%?
Unfortunately, what economists are saying is that 4 or 5% of the population is not employable. This goes directly to your question. How to get at that group? Well, Foodlink is devoting resources to the causes of hunger with its Fulfillment center noted above as well as partnering with other businesses and agencies that have resources or expertise that together we can do a better job of addressing the causes of hunger. It is a very complex issue.
Bibliochef: Good question for our readers to comment on again. Thanks. My guess is this is real food for thought for them (pun intended). It is for me. I know that Foodlink serves a wide range of 10 counties, as you noted above. Do you – or does Foodlink have data on Ontario County and, for example, rates of hunger in and around Geneva? Could you share it if you do?
Jack: Hunger at Home contains data for our ten counties as a whole, but we’re working on breaking it down by county. We do know that we distributed nearly 650,000 lbs of food to Ontario County agencies this year – that’s approximately 68 pounds of food for each person in poverty throughout the county. [Again, for the data, organized by national, state, and local areas, click here.]
Bibliochef: Having said all this about Foodlink, and learned so much, I want to ask about another organization entirely! I met you in the context of Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty rather than Foodlink. Could you talk a bit about that organization and your relation to it?
Jack: Sure, Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty is exactly that. It is an organization that celebrates the bounty of the Finger Lakes; growers, producers, restaurants, wine trails and now cheese trails are all celebrated by the Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty. You can find out more about FLCB by visiting. www.flcb.org And even more important you can become a friend of Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty by making a small contribution to help offset costs and expand opportunities to (and/or awareness of) buy local in the Finger Lakes.
You begin to see how Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty aims to bring the tastes of the region to a wider market place and a market place that creates more jobs and economic activity—all of which addresses the underlying causes of hunger.
We welcome people who may be interested in learning more about FLCB—just contact us on the FLCB web site and we will get you the information you are looking for.
There isn’t a more beautiful place to live or a “terroir” that is more bountiful then the Finger Lakes—in my opinion of course.
Bibliochef: Nice way to link the Foodlink commitment to what can come across as a more indulgent foodie aspect of where we live -- and yet is itself part of combating hunger in some ways. Thanks. And are there other ways you are connected to the food world that I simply do not know about? (I certainly enjoyed learning from you about food and drink while at the dinner!)
Jack: It is amazing when you stand back and look at what Foodlink does and what it is involved in. If you take the complete food cycle that I will define as seed production, farming/growing, food and meal preparation, food distribution and storage, food waste processing and recycling/composting---Foodlink is involved in all of those activities in one way or another except seed production.
Our composting activity continues to increase in size and our ethanol generation activities with one of our new partners has great promise as well. Perhaps next year we can talk a little more about those activities when they develop a little more. Is that a tease or what?
Bibliochef: And, of course, I cannot resist. As someone who shares a name with the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, reputed to be the inventor of the sandwich, what’s your view on the best sandwich ever?
Jack: Ahhh, the Earl—too busy gambling to stop and eat so he invented a sandwich. Hmmm…maybe he was a farmer…probably not.
favorite sandwich has many different names; hoagie, sub, grinder, torpedo, and
probably other names that I haven’t heard of. What do I put on it?
Depends on the mood, weather etc…
Bibliochef: And now for some of the questions I ask all of the people I “speak” with! What’s the absolutely best meal you have ever had? What made it the best meal?
Jack: Steamed crabs thrown on a picnic table covered with newspapers as a table cloth and pitchers of beer and ice tea. And a lot of good friends and family to share it with!
Bibliochef: What music, films, books related to food would you recommend? Why?
What I encourage everyone to do is what you saw at the Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty Dinner held at Geneva on the Lake—try different things that you can get from the local area and match those things with some of our locally produced wines to enhance the flavors. There are any number of vintners who will recommend wines to pair with great local food. And this is a great time of year to savor the Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty.
For your readers who may be curious about the Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty Dinner—it is an annual event that we hold as a fund raiser for the activities of the Finger lakes Culinary Bounty and if you missed it this year—not to worry you can join us next year for a fabulous evening of the food, wine, music in one of the premier settings in the Finger Lakes. [For information on this year's -- alas, past -- event, click here.]
Bibliochef: Hey, thanks for the compliment to the blog! And I was intrigued to hear at the dinner that Finger Lakes chefs will be appearing on Chopped. I do, indeed, occasionally indulge in watching that and it will be a real treat to see familiar faces. Meanwhile, for yet another question I ask everyone, what do you eat for comfort food?
Jack: Carbs! On a cold winter day hot soup and carbs can do no wrong.
Bibliochef: Do you have a favorite restaurant in the Finger Lakes region? If so, what is it?
Jack: All of them is the safe answer. There are so many great places tucked away in the Finger Lakes I am reluctant to suggest just one but at high risk I will single out my fellow Culinary Bounty board member and organizer of the Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty Dinner—The Newt, the Red Newt located in Hector, NY and run by Dave and Deb Whiting—great people, great food in a great location. [Want to watch Deb Whiting on youtube? Click here!]
Bibliochef: Thanks for going out on that limb! And finally, what am I not asking that I should? What question have you never been asked that you have always wanted to be asked? What's your answer?
Jack: Hmmmm…for another great night of food and wine you can join us at the Rochester Public Market on the night of September 20 to enjoy tastes from local area purveyors. We call it “Savor Rochester: a Festival of Food” and it’s Foodlink’s most exciting event of the year. If you like food and you want to support local business, be there. It always proves to be a magical night night and all proceeds from ticket sales go toward supporting a great cause: fighting hunger. To buy tickets, go to www. foodlinkny.org.
Bibliochef: I just might! And I hope readers will. Thanks for doing this. And readers, if you are interested in this work, there are a variety of ways you can help (besides buying a ticket). One is a food drive (click here for information) or making Foodlink your United Way contribution. (Click here for information on such donations and other ways to help through money.) They are the (or a?) recipient of monies from “Check Out Hunger” events at grocery stores in our area as well. And, of course, you can volunteer -- or advocate -- or . . . .
Equally importantly, if you need help or know someone who does, you can find a place to get food by calling Life Line at 585-275-5151. Spread the word -- and let's get to those root causes of the hunger around us.
And, by the way -- Foodlink has a blog -- you too can read it -- check it out right here.And thanks again to Jack for his time!