Foodlink’s statement at the NYS Assembly hearing on tenant protections and housing affordability

The following is testimony of Tom Silva, Community Advocacy Coordinator, Foodlink Inc., delivered at the Public Hearing on Rental Housing & Tenant Protections on May 10, 2019 in Rochester.

Who We Are

Thank you for this opportunity to comment on the vital issue of rent and eviction protections for tenants in New York State.  My name is Tom Silva, and I am the Community Advocacy Coordinator at Foodlink here in Rochester. Foodlink is a community food resource center and the Feeding America food bank serving Allegany, Genesee, Livingston, Monroe, Ontario, Orleans, Seneca, Wayne, Wyoming, and Yates counties. Our mission is to leverage the power of food to end hunger and build healthier communities.

Foodlink is the backbone of the emergency food network in Rochester and the ten surrounding counties. We work with hundreds of partner organizations to distribute over 18 million pounds of food annually in our service area. This network of food pantries, homeless shelters, and hot meal programs work to ensure that everyone who walks through their door is fed and nourished. Our community kitchen produces over 3,500 meals every day for low-income children across the city of Rochester. The Curbside Market, our farmers market on wheels, visits over 80 locations every week and conducted over 40,000 transactions last year for fresh produce. The majority of these market sites are affordable housing communities.

Why We Are Here

Despite all of our resources, partners, and programs – the food insecurity rate in our region remains stubbornly high. Food insecurity refers to USDA’s measure of lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods. Food insecurity often reflects a household’s need to make trade-offs between important basic needs, such as paying rent, and purchasing nutritionally adequate foods.


Across our ten county service area, Feeding America estimates that more than 11% of households, or 145,000 people, are food insecure. 92,000 of those households are in Monroe County. Right here in the City of Rochester, the rate jumps to 25%. In the poorest zip codes, such as 14608, that number jumps again to 40%.

At the same time, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, 52% of renters in the Rochester metro area are rent burdened – meaning they spend over 30% of their income on housing. 30% are severely rent burdened – meaning they spend over 50% of their income on housing. This amounts to over 75,000 individuals in the metro area who are in a state of crisis in their housing. Here in the City of Rochester, 65% of residents are renters. These figures are almost exactly the same as the New York City metropolitan area, but Western New York lacks equivalent tenant protections.

The statistics I’ve shared about food insecurity and housing stability are not isolated – they are the same households, individuals, and families. Charitable and programmatic solutions to food insecurity can only do so much if our community members do not have stable housing to store, prepare, and cook their own meals. If we are serious about ending hunger in our community, we must ensure that people have guaranteed tenant protections and access to affordable housing. Without this, we cannot expect people to meet their nutritional needs on a daily basis. We cannot expect people to manage diet related illness without their kitchens. And we cannot expect children to succeed in school without nutritious food at home.

What We Ask

Because we cannot eliminate hunger without addressing the housing crisis faced by our community, we have come to give public testimony today in support of a series of bills and actions to increase tenant protections and affordability. Foodlink endorses the Universal Rent Control platform of the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance. We also strongly support the Home Stability Support proposal (A01620) for expanded rent  assistance subsidies for families receiving public assistance and the rest of the alliance’s End Homelessness platform. Additionally, we strongly support the proposal(A03611) to remove geographic restrictions from Human Services sanctions reform to allow a reconciliation period for individuals who have missed a single appointment before being barred from receiving public benefits. Currently, this policy only applies to New York City, despite Monroe County having one of the state’s highest sanction rates. These sanctions are punitive to the lowest income and most at risk members of our community. When these payments are revoked, it leads to hunger for families and often leads to the commencement of eviction proceedings, which then increases the client’s reliance on the social services safety net due to their need for emergency food and shelter.

Many households in the state will be best served by expanding the Emergency Tenant Protection Act (A7046) to allow counties to opt into rent stabilization for their municipalities. However, this would only apply to buildings with 6 or more units and regions with a vacancy rate below 5%. As the data shows, even in Western New York, tens of thousands of tenants are rent burdened despite a vacancy rate slightly above the threshold for stabilization. Passing new Good Cause Eviction Legislation (A5030) will not necessarily regulate rents, but rather prevent tenants from being evicted from their home at the whim of a landlord. It would require that landlords always offer tenants a renewal lease and forbid the renewal leases to demand an “unconscionable rent.” Under the proposal, a rent would be considered unconscionable if it represented an increase by more than 1.5 times the rate of inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index and if the landlord could not provide a reason to justify it. It would apply to all rented houses and apartments – except apartments in two- or three-family houses where the owner also resides. Specifically, it would provide renters in our region with an immediate increase in protection and security in their housing.

For these reasons, Foodlink urges you to pass Good Cause Eviction protections throughout New York State, as well as the other bills supported by the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance. Thank you for your time today.

City, Foodlink celebrate grand opening of Public Market’s Nutrition Education Center

Foodlink’s nutrition educators took center stage at the City of Rochester Public Market on Thursday, helping to mark the grand opening of the market’s new Nutrition Education Center.

The new kitchen space, located inside Shed B, will host a variety of community nutrition and culinary programs, including Foodlink’s weekly Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables workshops. Each Thursday and Saturday morning (9 and 10 a.m.), Foodlink educators Marcy McMahon and Desiree Bass share recipes, nutrition lessons and shopping tips to encourage market patrons to adopt healthier eating habits with a limited budget.

The City of Rochester and Foodlink were key partners in this venture, along with Wegmans Food Markets, the Friends of the Public Market, State Sen. Joe Robach, and Summit Federal Credit Union. Mitch Gruber, a City Council member and Foodlink’s Chief Programs Officer, has long been a fan of the market, both for its rich history and for what it has evolved into today.

“This is the biggest market in the entire nation when it comes to SNAP transactions — formerly food stamps — by a significant margin,” Gruber said. “There’s no market that comes close to serving as many people with SNAP benefits, which is why it’s so important for us at Foodlink to come here and give people the skills to cook.”

Just Say Yes is one of three nutrition education programs delivered by Foodlink throughout the Rochester area. Cooking Matters is a six-week course that caters to various age groups, while Finger Lakes Eat Smart New York is a program designed for SNAP recipients that focuses on eating more fruits and vegetables, reducing consumption of sugary beverages, and exercise.

Mayor Lovely A. Warren said the market’s new Nutrition Education Center “adds value to the Public Market, making it a place where you can buy healthy, affordable food, learn how to prepare it, and enjoy being a part of a community that’s excited about good food.”

Annual ‘Map the Meal Gap’ report released with updated food-insecurity data

Feeding America this week released its annual Map the Meal Gap report, which shows food-insecurity data for every county in the country.

Within Foodlink’s 10-county service area, more than 145,000 people — about 11.5 percent of the population — live in food-insecure households, according to the report. Of those people, approximately 48,000 are children.

MAP: Explore the data from the ‘Map the Meal Gap’ report

In Monroe County, 12.4 percent of the population — more than 92,000 people — are food-insecure, which the USDA defines as “a lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.”

Among the other nine counties in Foodlink’s service area, the food-insecurity rates, from low to high, were as follows: Ontario (9%), Wayne (9.8%), Yates (9.9%), Seneca (10.3), Genessee (10.5%), Wyoming (10.5%), Livingston (10.9%), Orleans (11.8%), and Allegany (12.4%). The average meal cost ranged from $2.47 in Yates county, to $3.29 in Allegany County.

The study also shows a large portion of the population that is considered food-insecure, yet are not eligible for federal nutrition programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Those rates range from 22% in Yates County to 39% in Livingston County.

Nationally, Rural and Southern communities are disproportionately impacted. Eight of the top ten states with the highest percentage of child food insecurity are all located in the South. Additionally, 84% of the counties with high child food insecurity rates are rural.

The number of Americans identified by the USDA as food insecure fell significantly in the past seven years in the wake of the Great Recession. The national rate peaked at 50 million in 2009 to 40 million in 2017 (the most recent year for which data are available).

“The Feeding America nationwide network of food banks is investing in our nation’s future by helping to provide over 146 million meals to children every year,” said Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, chief executive officer of Feeding America. “Still, Map the Meal Gap highlights that more must be done. Together food banks, corporations, policymakers, donors, volunteers and advocates can solve hunger.

“I encourage everyone to visit the website, map.feedingamerica.org to find out what hunger looks like in their community and get involved to be part of the solution,” Babineaux-Fontenot continued. “One way is to tell Congress to invest in kids during Child Nutrition Reauthorization legislation and increase access to food for kids during the summer. Your voice matters and we can make a difference.”

‘Fight Hunger. Spark Change’ campaign nears goal of 1 billion meals

One in eight Americans in communities across the U.S. struggle with hunger, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including nearly 150,000 people in the Rochester region. To raise awareness and combat the issue, Walmart, Sam’s Club and Feeding America® have launched its sixth annual “Fight Hunger. Spark Change.” (FHSC) campaign, which will run from April 22 to May 20.

In partnership with Foodlink, the regional food bank that serves 10 counties in western New York, Walmart and Sam’s Club are inviting area shoppers to help fight hunger in their local community. There are three ways to participate – purchasing a participating item in-store or online, donating in-store or donating on Feeding America’s website.

With 749 million meals donated over the last five years, the Rochester-area community can help the Feeding America network secure its goal of 1 billion cumulative meals. They can track the number of meals by visiting www.walmart.com/fighthunger.

• For every participating product purchased at U.S. Walmart stores, Sam’s Clubs or on Walmart.com during the campaign, the supplier will donate the monetary equivalent of at least one meal ($0.10) on behalf of a Feeding America member food bank, up to applicable limits.

• Customers can donate money to a local Feeding America food bank (Foodlink) at participating Sam’s Club and Walmart stores in the U.S.

• Customers also can donate online at feedingamerica.org/Walmart.

Walmart began the campaign with a $3 million donation to Feeding America and member food banks. A purchase of one of the 267 participating items helps secure the equivalent of one meal. Each Walmart and Sam’s Club will partner with at least one Feeding America local food bank, and the 18 participating suppliers include: Bush Brothers, Campbell’s, Conagra Brands, Cliff Bar, General Mills, Gold Peak Tea, Great Value, Hidden Valley, JM Smucker, Kellogg, Kraft Heinz, McCormick, Motts, PepsiCo, Post, Uncle Ben’s, Nature Nate’s Honey and Unilever.

“As we go into our sixth year of the ‘Fight Hunger. Spark Change.’ campaign, it’s exciting to approach the 1 billion mark in terms of charitable meals secured for Feeding America over the life of the program,” said Kathleen McLaughlin, chief sustainability officer for Walmart. “Food insecurity continues to affect communities across the United States. Working with Feeding America, our customers, members, associates and suppliers, Walmart and Sam’s Club aim to be part of the solution.”

To learn more about the campaign, visit www.walmart.com/fighthunger.

Volunteer Spotlight: Anne Palumbo

In honor of Volunteer Appreciation Month, we’re spotlighting one of our devoted nutrition education volunteers who has been with us for more than 8 years!

Meet Anne Palumbo …

How long have you been a Cooking Matters volunteer?

I have been volunteering with Cooking Matters since 2011– 8 fulfilling years! I heard about the program through my college-age daughter. We wanted to volunteer together and she found the opportunity on social media. Although, unfortunately, she was unable to participate, I was immediately drawn to the program and have been volunteering ever since!

What does volunteering mean to you?

Volunteering with Cooking Matters is one of the most rewarding aspects of my life, on so many levels. Since I am keenly interested in nutrition and healthy cooking, it gives me great joy to see the immediate impact of what we teach and encourage. From young children exclaiming, “I want to be a chef!” to pregnant mothers lamenting “Oh, I had no idea there was so much fat in fast food,” to adults struggling with high blood pressure saying, “I never thought to look at the sodium content of canned soup before,” it is truly gratifying to see how this incredible program causes light bulbs to go off, and to know that I’ve played a role in someone’s journey.

What do you love most about volunteering with Foodlink?

What do I love most about volunteering with Foodlink? It’s hard to pick one thing! The organization itself is a gift to our city, and the tireless effort they make to ensure the success of Cooking Matters is another gift altogether. Having been with Cooking Matters since the beginning, I’ve watching it evolve over the years, and it has only gotten better. I have loved getting to know all ages of class participants that I would have never rubbed shoulders with had I not signed up to volunteer. And I especially love knowing that our message is getting across when they excitedly tell us they’re shopping better, eating healthier, or that they made a dish we taught in class. I also really enjoy volunteering alongside the talented, knowledgeable Foodlink team, as well as the other volunteers. Every 6-week session is unique!

Interesting in volunteering? Learn more about the program at www.FoodlinkNY.org and sign up for an upcoming course!

Foodlink submits public comment in opposition to proposed SNAP changes

Foodlink submitted the following public comment on a proposed rule by the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that would limit states’ ability to waive time-limits connected to eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Federal law already requires that states limit SNAP eligibility to just three months out of every three years for unemployed and underemployed adults without dependent children unless they can document 20 hours of work a week. Now the USDA has proposed to make those time limits even harsher. USDA’s proposed rule would undercut states’ ability to waive these strict time limits in many areas where there are too few jobs. The USDA estimates its proposal would eliminate SNAP benefits for an additional 755,000 adults and cut SNAP benefits on a ten-year basis by $15 billion.

The following is Foodlink’s statement in response to this proposed rule:

Foodlink strongly opposes the USDA’s Proposed Rule on SNAP requirements and services for Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWDs). The proposed changes would cause serious harm to low-income individuals and families in the Rochester region – and across the country.

Foodlink is the regional food bank serving Rochester and the Finger Lakes region of New York that provides over 18 million of pounds of food to hundreds of partner organizations every year. We efficiently connect food to people in the most innovative ways, however for every meal that the emergency food system provides in our area, SNAP benefits provide 12. In addition, for every dollar spent with SNAP benefits in our region, $1.79 is generated in the local economy. Foodlink’s Curbside Market (a mobile farmers market that serves low-income communities) recorded over 40,000 transactions and redeemed over $60,000 in SNAP benefits alone. If this rule change went into effect, the charitable sector would not be able to make up the gap in the benefits for individuals, and local businesses and agriculture will suffer. Hunger, diet-related illness, and poverty will increase in our region as a result of a proposal that Congress already rejected in bipartisan fashion during the Farm Bill negotiations of 2018.

SNAP currently imposes a 3-month time limit on receipt of benefits by individuals between the ages of 18 – 49 who aren’t raising minor children in their homes. The USDA also currently grants waivers to states and regions with persistently high unemployment, including eight counties in Foodlink’s service area (Allegany, Genesee, Monroe, Orleans, Seneca, Wayne, Wyoming, and Yates). If the proposed rule change were approved, those areas would no longer qualify for waivers under the new unemployment floor (at least 6%), which would deny thousands of individuals access to food on a daily basis.

Although most counties in our service area have an unemployment rate under 5%, those numbers do not take into account significant barriers to employment in our region. African Americans and individuals without a college degree have an approximately 10% unemployment rate, and many more individuals are underemployed or work in seasonal industries. Despite the fact that the majority of SNAP recipients are employed, it is extremely common to experience a reduction in hours that would place them below 20 hour/week minimum to qualify for food assistance. Limited transportation and deindustrialization also present barriers to employment that will not be overcome in the short term. By the federal government’s own admission, if the rule change were implemented, two-thirds of ABAWDs currently receiving SNAP would become categorically ineligible for a waiver and would be removed from the program. Without the addition of new jobs and effective workforce training programs, this would result in a significant increase in the number of individuals in need of emergency food resources.

We commend the 47 senators and numerous organizations across the country that have signaled their opposition to this proposed rule change, and we urge you to withdraw this rule from consideration.

Foodlink Fellows win friendly competition before leaving for Wegmans

The final day at Foodlink was a victorious one for the inaugural class of the Foodlink Career Fellowship.

To cap off the third quarter of Foodlink’s new culinary training program, the kitchen hosted a friendly competition between the Fellowship and Foodlink’s full-time kitchen staff. “The Great Foodlink Cooking Showdown was held in conjunction with the annual healthy potluck, where staff members prepare and share healthy dishes to celebrate the culmination of National Nutrition Month.

The teams had about one hour to prepare two dishes apiece. A judging panel then sampled each dish, provided feedback and determined the winner. The “Broccoli Tots” created by the Fellowship received the highest praise.

The Fellows have completed nine months of intensive training at Foodlink, both in a classroom (170 hours) and hands-on training (860 hours) preparing meals in the Foodlink Community Kitchen. They have also spent time (62 hours) developing their soft skills as they prepare for the next steps in their careers.

The final quarter of the year-long program, which was recently approved as the first official Cook Apprenticeship in the state, takes place outside of Foodlink. The inaugural class interviewed for, and all received internship positions at area Wegmans locations. The Fellows started on April 1.

On Saturday, the Fellows attended orientation at Wegmans’ flagship store in Pittsford, On Monday, they start their 3-month internship.

Report shows nearly one-third of New York adults eat no fruits or vegetables

The New York State Department of Health (DOH) recently announced the release of a new report that showed about one-third of adults (31.2%) in New York consume no fruits or vegetables per day.

The report, Percentage of Adults Who Consume No Fruits or Vegetables in New York State by County, was based on data from the 2016 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) and presents data on no daily consumption of fruits or vegetables by county. The percentage of adults who consume no fruits or vegetables per day varies by county from 19.5% to 42.4%.

The findings illustrate how barriers to healthy food access are prevalent in many communities around the state. High cost is a deterrent to many, while limited access prevents many others from purchasing the fruits and vegetables that many families may take for granted.

Dietary guidelines recommend eating fruits and vegetables to reduce the risk for diet-related chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and obesity.

Jefferson County (north of Syracuse) had the highest rate in the state at 42.4%, while Columbia (south of Albany) and Essex (North Country) tied for the lowest at 19.5%. The 10 counties within Foodlink’s service area had the following rates of adults who reported no daily consumption of fruits and vegetables:

Allegany: 28.6%

Genesee: 33.3%

Livingston: 30.7%

Monroe: 27.5%

Ontario: 23.8%

Orleans: 32.6%

Seneca: 20.6%

Wayne: 33.3%

Wyoming: 24.5%

Yates: 21.0%

‘SNAP Gap’ distributions reach more than 12,000 people

Last month, Foodlink partnered with the United Way of Greater Rochester and several community partners to hold additional food distributions to help those impacted by the federal government shutdown earlier this year.

The early release of February SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits in mid-January resulted in a “SNAP Gap” for thousands of families in the Rochester region. Foodlink and the United Way — with key funding support from the ESL Charitable Foundation, United Way of Greater Rochester, Rochester Area Community Foundation, Greater Rochester Health Foundation, and Max & Marian Farash Charitable Foundation — held 14 “SNAP Gap” distributions during the week of Feb. 18-23. The distributions provided 180,000 pounds of food to more than 12,000 people throughout Foodlink’s 10-county service area.

Foodlink provided food to 3,412 households — 52% in the City of Rochester and 48% in rural/outlying counties. Overall, approximately 7,000 adults and 5,000 children were served and the distributions provided nearly 140,000 meals. Three of the highest 5 zip codes served during the week were among the most food-insecure zip codes in the entire state.

The week leading up to the distributions required plenty of coordination as food arrived in Foodlink’s distribution center from around the region. More than 500 volunteers helped pack 40- to 50-pound bags of product — and dozens more assisted at several distribution sites. The City of Rochester helped set up distributions at four city R centers, and the Salvation Army also stepped up to host an additional distribution. The other nine distributions were held at pre-scheduled Mobile Pantry sites outside of Rochester.

More than 78,000 pounds of product were donated by local companies including: Barilla (pasta), Bonduelle (frozen vegetables), General Mills (cereal), Kreher’s (eggs), LiDestri (marinara sauce), Regional Distributors (supplies), Seneca Foods (canned goods), Perfect Granola (granola bars), Orbakers Fruit Farm (apples), and Wegmans Food Markets (bread).

From everyone at Foodlink, and all of those whom we served, thank you to all of the volunteers, donors and community partners who helped pull this off. Your support means the world, and our neighbors were appreciative of our collective efforts.

Fellows land externships at area Wegmans

The inaugural class members of the Foodlink Career Fellowship were notified Monday of their acceptance into externships at various Wegmans stores and restaurants.

After a lengthy interview process on March 6, seven Fellows received their official acceptance letters when they arrived at Foodlink on Monday morning. They will finish up work within the Foodlink Community Kitchen in March, then begin their new roles on April 1.

The Fellows will be working at stores in Brockport (Jenna), Canandaigua (Kristen), East Ave. (Jehmel & Anthony), Pittsford (LaRhonda & Bre’Onn), and at Next Door Bar & Grill in Pittsford (Gloria).

After three months at Wegmans, the Fellows will graduate from the program and seek full-time work in the regional food industry. They began their journey in July, and have since completed a rigorous online training course (Rouxbe), and have hundreds of hours of hands-on experience preparing meals in the Foodlink Community Kitchen. Along the way, they have picked up six industry-recognized certifications to add to their respective resumes.

The interview process, which took place at Wegmans’ flagship store in Pittsford, included interviews by a Regional Chef, Human Resources representative and the Executive Chef at Next Door. Each interview lasted approximately 45 minutes. Fellows prepared resumes, cover letters and a portfolio featuring photographs and their various certifications.

Jes Scannell, Director of Career Empowerment Initiatives at Foodlink, and Clayton Waller, Career Coach, spent long hours preparing the Fellows for the interview process. They, along with the kitchen’s full-time staff members who have served as mentors to the Fellows for the past eight months, were applauded during an all-staff meeting at Foodlink Monday.