Carol Palumbo has spent her career engaged in community action.
The Lewiston resident is the new agency services director at the Food Bank of Western New York after a nearly three-year stint on its board of directors. While serving on the board, Palumbo was the family development and nutrition supervisor for the Niagara Community Action Program (NiaCAP). She spent more than 20 years with NiaCAP in various positions prior to joining the Food Bank staff in late October.
The Food Bank served 10 million meals in 2012 throughout Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie and Niagara counties.
Mary Lou Borowiak, the Food Bank’s president and chief executive officer, recalled when Palumbo joined her organization’s board nearly three years ago.
“Carol was an active and engaging board member,” Borowiak said. “She just jumped right in. We were trying to find how to better distribute our food, and she was the voice of the agencies at the table. We revamped our ‘food express’ program – our produce program – to become more efficient, and we had to combine some programs, but we’re now able to reach more people. Carol spearheaded the entire thing for Niagara County. That was a major accomplishment for her.
“We went through the whole process to fill this position,” Borowiak said. “We had a team of four on our search committee, and they were unanimous in their choice of Carol for her wealth of knowledge, her experience, her nutritional background and the ease of transition she would have. She just walked right in and made an impact. This position has been a perfect fit for Carol, and she’s a perfect fit for the Food Bank.”
The Niagara Falls native recently chatted about her lengthy career in community service.
How did you embark on this career?
I always knew I wanted to find some way to give back, to help people. I earned my associate’s degree at Niagara County Community College and then my family development certification from Cornell University much later, while I was employed by NiaCAP. I started working at NiaCAP before I had kids, as a youth services coordinator. Then my husband, Marty, and I had two sons, and I was a stay-at-home mom. Then I received a call from NiaCAP to join the board of directors. I did that for almost three years, when the position of outreach worker became available, and I was asked to apply, so I did, and I got the job. Most of my career has been dedicated to community action.
How long were you at NiaCAP?
Twenty-three years. I became an outreach worker in Lockport in the Neighborhood Centers program, back when we were primarily a food pantry. We had them in three cities (Niagara Falls, Lockport and North Tonawanda). We focused on the basic needs of food and clothing. Then it started to grow to include shelter assistance, which would be rent and mortgage assistance. It was a chance to really get to know the families by spending some time with them and not just handing them a bag of groceries. And it was a chance to get to know the other resources in the cities, as well.
Lockport was a wonderful community, a very giving community. They had a lot of donations of clothing and food drives. I felt really at home there. People would come to me and trust that the information I gave them was right, and they’d send their friends and family members to me. We started with something simple, and it grew.
What was your next job?
I became the family development coordinator in 2000 for NiaCAP, so I supervised the three neighborhood centers, their staffs and programming. It gave me a whole new look at the entire county. I had to learn how to collaborate with other agencies and how we could assist families the best we could.
In 2004, I became the family development and nutrition supervisor, when we brought the nutrition outreach and education pieces into it.
I was also on the board of directors for the Food Bank of Western New York for almost three years, specifically in the agency services position on the board. I represented all agency needs in Western New York.
Tell me more about your Cornell certification.
We were the first class to graduate in this curriculum. There were 32 of us from across the state. We spent over a year at this, and then I became a trainer for this process. The last class I trained was in 2009, and I had 15 members – the largest class I had. It was a really awesome experience.
Tell me about leaving NiaCAP and starting work at the Food Bank.
It was bittersweet because my growth and development came through my experience working at NiaCAP, and that is what brought me here, to the Food Bank, today.
Tell me about your new job.
I started on Oct. 28. We serve four counties (Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie and Niagara), so I went from one county (Niagara) to four and from working with 40 agencies in Niagara County to well over 300 now with the food bank. But I’m not alone. I have a team and the rest of the Food Bank staff. Everyone’s been wonderful.
Tell me about the Food Bank, in general.
We hit a record with annual distribution last year. Fourteen million pounds of food went to Western New York agencies in 2103. That’s huge. As far as people served per month, we served 66,956 per month in Erie County last year, 11,460 in Chautauqua County, 6,994 in Cattaraugus County and 10,769 in Niagara County.
It takes a team to be able to get that food out to the people who need it. And we’ve seen a new influx of families that had good-paying jobs when they were working. They used to donate and help those in need, and now they are the ones in need. It’s very heartbreaking.
But the food bank does a wonderful job by providing good, nutritional, healthy food and initiatives for Western New York, and I’m glad to be a part of it.
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