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Growing an organization with roots in the community

LOCKPORT – In the six years since she became executive director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension, Niagara County, Cathy Lovejoy Maloney has achieved a great deal, yet by her own admission, the possibilities her job affords are endless.

The group’s mission is, in part, “to create positive change on behalf of families and communities through its programs.”

The extension service has evolved from the days when your mother may have called looking for a tip in solving a household problem to include a bounty of programs, including several that focus on reducing food insecurity through education.

Not to say folks don’t still call with questions.

“People ask questions all of the time, and they ask about all kinds of things,” said Maloney.

But Cooperative Extension is so much more.

John Sweeney Jr. is president of Cornell Cooperative Extension Niagara’s board of directors.

“We are well diversified,” he said. “When Cathy came on board, she felt that if the day ever came when we had our appropriations cut for any reason, she wanted to make sure we were solvent and grant-writing has become a big issue for Cathy and her staff. They do a fantastic job and are always looking for new grants for new programs.

“We work hard to educate and offer programs in all areas,” he said. “4-H is still a big one. Some of our programs have serviced many generations, but we’re also open to changing to meet the needs of the times.”

One of Cooperative Extension’s newer goals is helping alleviate Niagara County’s food insecurity, which, gauged at more than 17 percent, is higher than the state and national averages. That means that nearly 20 percent of the county’s population does not have reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.

To help alleviate this problem, one of Cooperative Extension’s programs, “Plentiful Partnerships of Niagara,” invited hardy volunteers to join staff and help glean nearly 30,000 pounds of produce from generous local farmers’ fields and markets last year. This food was then donated to local food pantries.

“Cathy and her staff did a fantastic job and, with volunteers, helped gather an awful lot of produce from farmers’ fields,” noted Sweeney. “And, the agricultural community was very receptive to this.”

Maloney recently took time from meeting a deadline on yet another grant application to chat about Cooperative Extension and what brought her to this job.

Are you from this area?

My father worked for IBM, so I lived in eight different states, but I’ve been in Western New York since the late 1980s. I’ve lived in Erie County and Niagara County and live in Pendleton now. I was born in the Ithaca area and went to Cornell University and earned my degree in human development/family studies, which is part of the School of Human Ecology. Then I received my law degree from UB.

How did you make the leap from law to your current position?

I practiced law for 10 years, then I went to work for Child and Family Services in Erie County as in-house counsel. I actually did a broad range of things there, from marketing to human resources to strategic planning and became a vice president. I started to build my skill set and it worked. Then I was executive director of the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens, then worked for a small company before coming here.

What drew you to this job?

This felt like coming home, after my childhood in Ithaca. I didn’t live on a farm, but my grandparents had a huge garden and canned. Food preservation has been lost and we’re trying to make that connection again. I think everything we do here falls under the umbrella of food systems, from the seeds in the soil to growing to harvesting to distribution to consumption to waste.

Agriculture and 4-H are the two things people think of most often when they think of Cornell Cooperative Extension, and while agriculture is still key, I think there has been a real shift nationally and world-wide regarding food. We all eat. More people want to know where that food comes from. I think there was a generational gap for several decades and many children – and even adults – don’t know where their food comes from.

How does your organization address this?

One of our pilot programs, for example, is called “AgX,” where we are introducing food systems to ninth-graders at Niagara Falls High School. They are learning about related careers, such as agriculture production and food safety. Agriculture is so much more technologically advanced than owning a cow and wearing boots. We’re starting to get that level of connection again. These kids will inherit the challenges of tomorrow.

Another one of our pilots is “Food, Farms and You,” which is for the younger, elementary school age kids. One piece is having the kids interview farmers and creating a video to show other students. Another pilot is “Cooking n’ the Pantry,” where we take whatever is fresh to the food pantries and offer recipes. For example, some people don’t know how to cook rutabaga or beets and we show them.

I’m really proud of these programs.

We’re offering education in a more informal way and I think inquiry-based learning is very important. Hands-on learning really resonates with children and adults.

So, who is your target audience?

Everyone wants to know about where their food comes from – it doesn’t matter who you are or how much money you have. Everyone asks, “How do I get my kids to eat more vegetables?” We want to expand more programs to address any need in the community.

Your “Creating Healthy Places to Live, Work and Play (CHP)” Program, developed through a state Department of Health grant, formed the foundation for the “Plentiful Partnership Niagara” Program, which is a collaborative effort among the Cooperative Extension, Food Bank of Western New York, Niagara Community Action Program, Western New York farmers and local food pantries to address food insecurity and waste. What’s next?

That grant is actually in its final five months and we are applying for the next generation of it, which is “Healthy Schools, Healthy Communities,” which takes a look at the places where kids walk after school and what food is served there.

We’re also applying for another grant to allow us to glean with the Food Bank of Western New York. Gleaning is difficult, because you don’t know what will come up and then you have to get a crew together. But so many pounds of food are left in the fields and it’s perfectly good food. It’s really a shame when you think of the food insecurity issues we have in this county. We need to make those connections.

Gleaning at farmers’ markets is a little easier. There are a lot of wonderful farmers donating food they have left over at the end of the day.

Where do you get your funding?

We receive some form of federal, state and county funding. We have a wonderful partnership with the county. But we’ve had to evolve and look at different forms of funding. I believe in diversification – you can’t put too many eggs in one basket. They hadn’t done a lot of grant-writing before I came here and now we apply for probably a minimum of 25 grants a year on all levels, and we do all of the grant-writing internally.

What else does the Cooperative Extension do?

The breadth of what we do is enormous. There are only nine 4-H youth fairs left in the state and we are the largest. We’re larger than some county fairs. But we own these 39 acres of land and whatever proceeds we make at the fair help support our programs. That’s a huge benefit to the community year-round. Our fair has a midway, food, animals – people really like it. And I think it really represents our county and what we have to offer. We also add a layer to the fair of our own programs, like nutrition, food systems and horticulture, so our fair is fun, safe and educational.

I didn’t realize you owned 39 acres.

We have 39 acres and 16 buildings and we rent out the grounds and some of the buildings for events. People don’t realize that. Our training center has three rooms that can be rented for wedding receptions or business meetings, for example, and we have caterers come in. We also have four storage buildings and people rent storage space here for everything from jet skis to enormous RVs. Our storage season runs from October to April. We also have two stables here, with an indoor and an outdoor arena.

Is all of this unusual for a Cooperative Extension?

I think it is. Some Cooperative Extensions just rent some space in an office building. We’re at the opposite extreme. Our administration building is a renovated barn. We even have a greenhouse here, too.

What’s the best part of your job?

My staff is great. They do this because they are passionate about it, as I am, and they work very hard. We also have a lot of volunteers who give of their time we couldn’t do many things we do without their support.

I also look at the ways we can grow this organization that is so rooted in the community. I’m proud of what we do. And, it’s endless, what we’re able to do here. I love what I do, I’m passionate about it and about giving back to the community. That’s something important that I felt I needed in my work every day.

Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com.