Tucked away in a little corner of Elmsford, a slight turn off of New York State Route 100, sits a long, short building that is Feeding Westchester’s warehouse. A branch of the Feeding America network, the country’s largest domestic hunger relief organization, Feeding Westchester’s aim is to bridge the meal gap in Westchester County. According to Feeding Westchester president and CEO Karen Erren, up to 300,000 people in the county are food insecure each month due to the pandemic.
On Dec. 15, the world within the unassuming building walls was alive with activity as volunteers and employees prepared pallets of food and called partner organizations to schedule pickups and deliveries before the impending snowstorm. Stacked floor-to-ceiling with pallets of nonperishable goods, the walls lined with large, cardboard boxes filled with fruits and vegetables, Feeding Westchester’s warehouse resembled a Costco or Sam’s Club as forklifts worked the room.
Feeding Westchester’s role in abating local food insecurity is to act as a food aggregator and distributor. Food comes into the warehouse via government food programs and funding, such as U.S. Department of Agriculture and New York State food programs with some funding from Westchester County as well. Food or monetary donations also come from food retailers, partnering corporations, food drives or individuals, and Feeding Westchester purchases more to fill any gaps. Items are then distributed to partner organizations which include food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters and other organizations that have feeding programs throughout the county. Feeding Westchester itself also has various pantries and drop-off locations.
Due to the pandemic, almost all food has been provided free of charge. “We’re still an emergency food distribution program right now,” said Nancy Lyons, director of Volunteer Services and former Scarsdale resident. “Since COVID began in March, agencies are receiving items for free, with the exception of items they ask us to purchase for them specifically.” From March to August, the National Guard was deployed to the area to participate in emergency food prep for Feeding Westchester, as the organization sent home almost all volunteers and employed a skeleton staff at the warehouse while brainstorming how to reorganize and meet the rising need safely.
“We have changed our distribution model here at Feeding Westchester, as have many of our partner organizations, with a prioritization on both health and safety, but also on volume,” Erren explained. “Before the pandemic, Feeding Westchester was distributing about 850,000 to 900,000 pounds of food each month. Right now we're distributing between 1.8 and 2.3 million pounds of food each month. We actually had one month when we were doing direct distributions that came to almost 2.6 million pounds.”
The rising need has come as a direct consequence of the pandemic. “Pre-COVID, Feeding Westchester's partners and direct programs were seeing about 150,000 people each month. We peaked this summer at three times that number, at about 450,000 visits. For the past three to four months we've been running pretty consistently at twice our pre-COVID number, so anywhere from 260,000 to 300,000 visits,” Erren said. She went on to cite how the unemployment rate in Westchester County peaked at 14% over the summer, and while it is back down to 7%, a large number of people in the community are still food insecure. “Some of our seniors live alone, but [had] depended on family members and get-togethers for one of their food sources. They don't have that anymore and are scared to go out,” Erren explained. “We've increased home deliveries in partnership with United Way of Westchester and Putnam and DoorDash. Children and families have also been impacted by the volatility in school schedules. It’s harder to access free breakfast and lunch, which they would have been able to depend on in usual times. All of these factors mean that the community has had additional food needs over the past eight months, and frankly, we are planning for that increased need to continue throughout 2021.”
Behind the current operation are 41 full-time employees, some additional part-time help, and a group of five to 10 volunteers — down from the 11,000 volunteers that have traditionally cycled through Feeding Westchester’s doors.
In deference to public health concerns, “We had to be cautious,” said Lyons as she explained how food distribution and volunteership has changed. For example, many items are now packed into individual bags and the amount of people coming into the warehouse is capped. To reduce contact among staff or volunteers, Feeding Westchester has limited the degree of customization possible in food orders and is pre-building meal box pallets of 120 meal boxes.
Lyons also explained how the organization reached out to a number of longstanding, reliable volunteers — those either living alone or in a two-person household and not traveling or leaving the state — to gauge interest. “We received a very good response ... from what we call our Tier 1 volunteers,” Lyons said.
One of these volunteers is Scarsdale resident Heidi Seruya, who worked alongside the National Guard over the summer, and now comes in five days a week for 40-hour weekday volunteer shifts.
“I used to come in two times a week for two hours,” Seruya said of her volunteership pre-pandemic. “We’re so privileged in our community, I just wanted to give back … And people are so grateful,” she said of the community members she meets when accompanying Feeding Westchester on its mobile pantry runs. “I wish I could do more.”
“Volunteers have been working this like a full-time job,” Lyons said. “The volunteers have become like a second family to me. I’ve spent more time here than with my own household.”
Lyons added that people are responding to the genuineness of the mission. Community members have been clamoring to get involved. “Many people have asked how they can help, so we created ‘Help from Home’ projects to make holiday bags. We’ve already received over 3,200 bags,” Lyons said, holding up a ziplock bag with turkey stuffing, green bean casserole and cake mix inside. Feeding Westchester also recently created a competition for community groups to create individual baggies of school lunches for children for the organization’s BackPack Program.
“We have really been humbled and so appreciative of the awareness of the struggle that so many of our neighbors are going through; of the awareness that our neighbors are hungry, that there are the folks who have always needed additional help, and then there's this group of folks who've never had to turn to anyone for help before. That awareness and action and support from the community has meant that we have been able to continue this increased volume of food,” Erren said in reference to the donations that have been pouring in from the community and partner organizations.
“I can’t fix everything in the world, but I can do my part,” said Lyons. “Food is what makes someone feel good about themselves. It helps a child to learn, it keeps senior citizens healthy. I feel strongly in this mission of a safe supply of food gotten in a socially respectful way.”
To get involved or donate, visit feedingwestchester.org.