Cody O'Loughlin / The New York Times

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased food insecurity and broadened the role of Ithaca food pantry organizations.

December 17, 2020

Organizations Work to Minimize Food Insecurity in Tompkins County

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As the pandemic exacerbates food insecurity, Tompkins County residents have ramped up their efforts to provide each other with groceries and meals. 

At over 50 locations in Tompkins County, people can find mutual aid food sharing cabinets –– small, volunteer-run food pantries where people can donate and take food, no questions asked. 

The initiative, which started in April, is one of the many ways in which people across Tompkins County are working to provide support to their neighbors who are facing food insecurity, continuing the work of non-profit workers and community organizers who had done this prior to the pandemic.  

“The mutual aid model is very grassroots and community based,” said Elizabeth Jesch, Americorps VISTA volunteer and coordinator for the Mutual Aid Food Sharing Cabinets. “The responsibility absolutely does not fall entirely on my shoulders.”

Jesch, who recently graduated Ithaca College with a degree in public health, said reducing food insecurity is necessary to combat health inequities.

“I care about health issues, and I care about human rights issues,” Jesch said. “Food insecurity is important to me because I believe that having access to healthy, affordable food is a human right.”

According to Jesch, each of the cabinets has a designated host who monitors it to ensure that they are stocked. The cabinets are largely full of non-perishable food items, personal hygiene products and other items. Some have a cooler next to them for perishable foods. 

Jesch runs monthly meetings, answers questions and concerns that come up about individual cabinets and responds to requests for new cabinets. Community members concerned about a cabinet’s state can communicate with each other on Facebook to ensure they are properly maintained. 

Another community resource for people in need of groceries and other assistance is No Mas Lagrimas, whose executive director, Ana Ortiz, recently won the Laura Holmberg Award for her many years of service in the Ithaca community. 

In addition to providing youth programming, support for domestic violence victims, and other services, No Mas Lagrimas volunteers distribute food, cleaning supplies, baby care supplies and health items most Thursday afternoons at 706 W. Buffalo St., behind the “Classrooms at Greenstar” in Ithaca.

While No Mas Lagrimas has offered food for years, Ortiz said she has seen an unprecedented number of people in need of assistance because of the rise in unemployment.

“Some people, they had a great job, and because of the pandemic, the store is closed or something,” said Ortiz. “Now they need all the services, and they were not expecting that.”

Loaves and Fishes of Tompkins County aims to assist people through providing them prepared meals rather than groceries. Loaves and Fishes is serving roughly 5,000 meals per week, triple what they had been providing at this time last year, according to executive director Reverend Christina Culver.

“The numbers increased steadily throughout the summer, to the point now where we’re serving nearly 5,000 meals a week,” Culver said. “It’s pretty remarkable that our streamlined team of volunteers and kitchen manager can still manage to keep up with preparing from scratch meals to go.”

According to Culver, many people who receive meals from Loaves and Fishes of Tompkins County have difficulty preparing their own meals for a range of reasons, whether it is lack of access to kitchen equipment or health challenges that make cooking difficult.

Loaves and Fishes offers free meals to-go, including lunch on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and dinner on Tuesday and Thursday. To minimize the risk of COVID-19 spread, Loaves and Fishes offers meals to-go and only allows a small number of masked volunteers in the building at once. 

The organization also partners with other nonprofits, including St. John’s Community Services’s Ithaca homeless shelter. Volunteers from Loaves and Fishes also regularly bring meals to the Jungle, an Ithaca area homeless encampment in southwest Ithaca.

“People most in need, people who are suffering from food insecurity living in poverty, homeless –– these are folks we’re trying to reach in all ways possible,” Culver said. “We’re ensuring that people get meals when they otherwise would have difficulty getting into town and physically to our building.”