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Working together: Food Bank, Meals on Wheels join forces

Jonathan Szucs was among 10 volunteers with the global sales team at Ingram Micro who spent a recent afternoon packing meals and weeding the community garden in the Food Bank of Western New York.

“When you can be outside during the summertime, it's always good, and we love to give back,” said Szucs, whose Williamsville company allows employees to spend a few working hours four times a year on service projects.

Two miles away in another Buffalo neighborhood, other volunteers spend parts of their summer days helping Meals on Wheels for Western New York.

Both the Food Bank and Meals on Wheels attack regional hunger. They joined forces in February with the belief that they can do so more effectively together.

“What we want to do is leverage the strengths of each legacy organization so that we can be a better, stronger organization,” said Tara A. Ellis, president and CEO of the joint operation, called FeedMore Western New York. “Our whole goal is about feeding more people in the community.”

Most people who work or volunteer with FeedMore WNY, as well as the thousands in the region who benefit from its services, haven’t noticed much difference as the merger takes hold.

That will change in the coming months. The joint organization is creating a new marketing brand, logo and website, and has embarked on a facilities study that could improve, move or combine current operations, which sit about 2 miles apart in the eastern stretch of the city.

If a single campus results, it likely will stay in the same vicinity or a similar centrally located, underserved community, said Catherine Shick, FeedMore communications director.

“The wonderful thing about this merger is that these organizations were both in a position where they were financially strong, and benefiting from strong board and staff leadership,” Shick said. “It was a perfect time, because of the strengths, to realize that we could come together as a single nonprofit, make an even greater impact and touch even more lives in the community.”

The Meals on Wheels portion of FeedMore WNY runs a delivery program that serves about 900,000 meals to nearly 3,400 homebound clients each year. Volunteer Sherry Sauer makes a delivery and pays a visit to Rosemarie Brem in Cheektowaga last week. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Needs in the FeedMore WNY service territory are great. Hunger threatens one in eight residents in the four counties it serves — Erie, Niagara, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua — including one of every five children.

Meals on Wheels operates in a 24,000-square-foot commissary along James E. Casey Drive, near the Cheektowaga border, preparing and delivering more than 1 million meals a year to homebound seniors and those who can make their way to 47 dining sites across most of the county (Amherst and Ken-Ton have their own Meals on Wheels programs). It also runs a 2,400-square-foot community center available for other groups and people to rent.

The Food Bank side of the operation, on Holt Street, includes a food warehouse, sorting area and offices, and an outdoor community garden expanded from nine to 25 raised planting beds in the wake of the merger.

“We have a variety of people working in here and volunteering, whether it's someone who needs food assistance, or whether it's someone who just loves to garden and volunteer,” said Marla Ryan, a FeedMore nutritionist.

The state Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables program helps cover her salary. Federal, state and local sources fuel the entire joint operation, including corporate and individual support through donations of money and volunteer time.

Ellis served five years as president and CEO of Meals on Wheels for WNY before she became head of the Food Bank in October 2017, to set the stage for the merger. Chris Procknal ran Meals on Wheels in the interim and retired in May.

FeedMore will continue and strengthen existing programs — the cornerstone of its mission, Ellis said — and be able to buy more food in bulk as one way to bolster operations. The staff, for instance, is looking at ways to take large bags of supplies, say 25-pound bags of brown rice, and split them into 1-pound packages for food pantries.

Christmas in July dishes were on the menu one day last week for FeedMore WNY home-delivered meals. “We like to do themed things, make it fun for the clients," says FeedMore Chief Communications Officer Anne McKenna, adding, "Our volunteers may be the only person they see during the day.” (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

The combined staff and board of directors also have established three “pilot ideas” for the coming months:

1. Expand the child backpack program

The Food Bank has a successful program that sends qualified kids home before weekends and holidays during the school year with foods to help tide them over until school days resume. The joint organization looks to extend that gradually through the summer. About 80,000 students in the four-county receive free or reduced-price school meals, Ellis said, but right now only about 19% of those children participate in a summer lunch program.

2. More comprehensive senior feeding opportunities

Many older adults to use dining sites for Meals on Wheels lunches have told staff and volunteers that is sometimes their only meal of the day. FeedMore is working on plans to send those people home with nutritious foods. There also is talk of “mobile food pantries” for seniors who work part-time and can’t get to dining sites regularly. “We don't want someone making the choice between something to eat and paying a utility bill,” Ellis said. “We really want to make sure good nutrition is always at the forefront.”

3. A workforce development program

FeedMore looks to provide culinary and warehouse training opportunities to those who are chronically under or unemployed. They also will help participants with resumes and job interview skills.

“We want to do this in phases, because we want to make sure that any promise that we're making to the community, we can not only fulfill but exceed expectations,” Ellis said.

The CEO also said the name of the new organization is not “terribly original.”

It came from a joint organization that combined the same programs in Richmond, Virginia — which was fine with the idea as long as "WNY" was added to the name.

“We were happy to do that,” Ellis said. “We have so much pride in our Western New York community that we actually think that makes the name even better.”

Cooks under the direction of Chef Gianluca Sciarra of Bateman Community Living make meals at FeedMore WNY last week. Along with delivered meals, the operation also makes an additional 230,000 meals for mobile seniors at 47 congregate dining sites across Erie County. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

FeedMore WNY – a snapshot

The organization: The Food Bank and Meals on Wheels for Western New York currently operate as a unified nonprofit under a joint services agreement. Finances remain separate until the State Attorney General’s Office formally approves their merger. At that point, combined annual revenue will reach nearly $33 million.

Mission: To offer dignity, hope and a brighter future by providing nutritious food, friendship and skills training to those with hunger challenges.

Reach: The Food Bank program procures and distributes more than 14 million pounds of food each year to partner hunger-relief agencies throughout Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie and Niagara counties, including food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, group homes, youth programs and adult day care programs. The Meals on Wheels program serves about 900,000 meals to nearly 3,400 homebound clients each year and an additional 230,000 meals to mobile seniors at 47 congregate dining sites.

Locations: The Food Bank warehouse is at 91 Holt St., and Meals on Wheels commissary is about 2 miles east at 100 James E. Casey Drive. Both are in the 14206 Zip code. FeedMore WNY also operates a satellite warehouse at 2485 Falconer-Frewsburg Road in Falconer to distribute food to agencies in Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties. The board of the new organization has started a facilities study to determine how to best operate in the future. 

People power: The combined work force stands at 101 full- and part-time employees and thousands of volunteers.

Support: Those in need of services from any program in the organization can call 822-2002 or 852-1305. Programs generally are donation-based or free. More information is available at mealsonwheelswny.org and foodbankwny.org as FeedMore works on a new brand and website.

Ingram Micro volunteer Jonathan Szucs weeds around the tomato plants at the FeedMore WNY community garden on Holt Street. The agency always welcomes volunteers for its Food Bank, Meals on Wheels and other programs. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Eat right

Marla Ryan, a nutritionist with FeedMore WNY, and her colleagues use ChooseMyPlate.gov to teach about healthy shopping trips and meal planning. Ryan’s top tips include:

Buy local, in season

Buying or growing fruits and vegetables that are in season can lower the cost and add to the freshness and nutritional value. In-season fruits and vegetables can be grown locally, so need not to be shipped from far away. A local farmers market is a great source of seasonal produce.

Try canned or frozen

Compare the price and the number of servings from fresh, canned, and frozen forms of the same veggie or fruit. Canned and frozen items may be less expensive than fresh. For canned items, choose fruit canned in 100% fruit juice, and vegetables with “low sodium” or “no salt added” when possible.

Keep it simple

Buy vegetables and fruits in their simplest form. Pre-cut, pre-washed, ready-to-eat, and processed foods are convenient, but often cost much more than when you spend a bit more time preparing them.

Plan, plan, plan!

Before you head to the grocery store, plan your meals for the week. Include meals like stews, casseroles, or soups, which stretch expensive items into more portions. Check in your cupboards, fridge and pantry to see what foods you already have and make a list for what you need to buy. Making dishes at home is also a great way to control the nutritional value of your meals.

Plant your own

Start a garden — in the yard, in a pot on the deck — for fresh, inexpensive, nutritional, and flavorful additions to meals. Herbs, cucumbers, peppers, or tomatoes are good options for beginners. Browse your local library or search online for more information on starting a garden.

email: sscanlon@buffnews.com

Twitter: @BNrefresh@ScottBScanlon

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