Imagine how many people could be fed with 125,000 pounds of food. At the Cooperstown Food Pantry, officials and volunteers don’t have to imagine it. They are providing it.
Last year the pantry saved 125,400 pounds of food from being thrown away by local grocery stores and restaurants, and most of the time, sent it home with needy Otsego County residents the same day the food was saved, a process known as fresh food recovery.
“There are a lot of people who make this fresh food recovery possible,” CFP Executive Director Stacey Smith said. “I could not do it without them.”
Smith said the movement to prevent stores, restaurants and farms from producing food waste was popularized by a national organization, Feeding America. Locally, a retired businessman and CFP volunteer, Eric Hill, started the program in 2015 after working out an agreement with the Price Chopper grocery store on Chestnut Street.
The food is often pulled from shelves at the stores because it is not cosmetically appealing, such as fruits and vegetables that are browning, bruising or wilting. Meats, and other products that have reached their sell-by date but are still good, are also donated; the meats are fast frozen on-site to help preserve them. The recovery saves the stores money in waste disposal, and sometimes, helps employees feel better about the amount of food that goes to waste every day.
“At first I was doing recovery a couple of days a week,” Hill said. “I asked the employees, ‘what happened to the food on the days I don’t pick it up?’ They said it gets thrown away. I said, ‘not anymore, it doesn’t.’’’
For a while, Hill was doing all the pickups himself, seven days a week. Now he and Smith have a team of about a dozen volunteers who take turns doing pickup.
“This community is amazing,” Hill said. “I’ve got some wonderful help these days.”
In 2017, the year Smith became the pantry’s first full-time professional director, the pantry expanded the program to the Price Chopper in Richfield Springs, about 15 miles north of Cooperstown. Because of the cost, Smith found a subsidy grant from The Community Foundation of South Central New York to pay a small salary to an employee to handle the Richfield trips five days a week.
In addition, recovery of bread is done from Schneider’s Bakery, and other food is recovered from local restaurants.
Last year was the first full year of having recovery from Richfield Springs, and the numbers were eye-popping even for the pantry officials, they said.
“In this little community alone, 125,000 pounds. Imagine if everyone did that,” Hill said.
Hill, a retired businessman who used to own Farm and Home in Cooperstown and Ben Franklin in Oneonta, among other businesses, said he enjoys giving his time to the pantry. He said the volunteers come from all walks of life, and often, like him, want to give back and help others who have been less fortunate.
“They had a need, and I had a need to volunteer,” he said.
“It is a fantastic program,” he continued. “In this little room, we serve about 200 families a month.”
Smith said she also loves the recovery program because it helps give pantry visitors more balanced diets.
“We might get a package of strawberries that can’t be sold,” she said, “but we can recover it. Well, at the store, it might cost $4 for that package. So a family on a budget might spend that money on processed foods that are cheaper. But for us, I can give them fresh strawberries rather than this fruit in a can, filled with a sugary syrup.”
Smith and Hill said the recovery program continues to expand as more businesses decide to donate food and prevent food waste. Hill said he has been trying to work out a similar recovery agreement with Tops, the grocery store in nearby Hartwick Seminary, but has had trouble getting corporate approval. However, he said, he is still hoping to work out an agreement.
In addition, the shelter is always in need of more volunteers, Smith said, for the recovery program and in general. Donations are accepted, too, and financial donations get multiplied because every $1 donated enables the pantry to buy $10 of food at the Regional Food Bank.
The Cooperstown Food Pantry is at 25 Church St. in Cooperstown, hosted by the First Presbyterian Church of Cooperstown. It serves individuals and families in Cooperstown and northern Otsego County. For more information, go to www.cooperstownfoodpantry.org or call 547-8902.