Foodlink earns Excellus BCBS Community Health Award

The Lexington Avenue Urban Farm provides gardening space for more than 60 Rochester families — many of whom are refugees from Nepal, Somalia or Bhutan.


Foodlink was one of 36 organizations across the state to earn a 2017 Community Health Award from Excellus BlueCross BlueShield.

The support, totaling $4,000, will help Foodlink create a safe and inviting play space adjacent to its Lexington Avenue Urban Farm in northwest Rochester. The farm, which began in 2012, primarily serves the local refugee community with more than 60 families expected to participate this year. There are dozens of raised beds, a 72-foot hoop house, fruit trees, bees and field beds. Many families visit the garden, so the goal of the project was to create a space for children to play while their family members tended to the garden. The area also will be open to children who don’t visit the garden, in an effort to cultivate a better sense of community between refugees and non-refugees in the Edgerton and Lyell-Otis neighborhoods. 

Nine Monroe County nonprofits won 2017 Community Health Awards totaling $27,500.

Foodlink intends to seek input from the community, the gardeners, as well as Common Ground Health’s Healthi Kids Coalition, which aims to — among other things — create a more “playable” Rochester for our children. 

The awards were announced April 20 at the Boys & Girls Club of Rochester. The club will use its $4,000 award to continue a new initiative to help students who have experienced childhood trauma. Two children who visit the Boys & Girls Club on Genesee Street attended the news conference, including Sylvester Carter III, whose mother was fatally shot last year. Carter, 14, gave a measured and eloquent speech about how the tragedy has affected his family and how the club helps him cope with the loss. 

He described his mother as “caring” and someone who would give him “all she ever had.”

“I can’t see that smile no more. I can’t hear her voice no more,” Carter said. “That’s why I thank the Boys & Girls Club. I can come here and get my mind off things, be with my friends, talk … all that pain and suffering is gone. I come here because they give me comfort.”

In total, $110,500 in funds were allocated to the 36 award winners out of approximately 200 applicants in a 31-county upstate region. The other winners from Monroe County who were honored Thursday include: Borinquen Dance Theatre, Inc., Child Care Council, Inc., Mental Health Association, RESOLVE of Greater Rochester, Samaritan Center of Excellence, Spiritus Christi Prison Outreach Prison Outreach and Willow Domestic Violence Center. 

Sylvester Carter III, who frequents the Boys & Girls Club, talks about losing his mother to gun violence last year and how the club has helped him cope with tragedy. (Credit: Excellus BCBS)

In it together: Foodlink hosts Community Food Conference

A panel discussion about food access, SNAP and other hunger- and health-related issues in the Rochester area.

A decade ago, the theme of Foodlink’s Community Food Conference would have undoubtedly been different.

More food? Infrastructure improvements? Attracting volunteers and donors? Yes, yes and yes.

These days, however, we’re covering those topics while devoting a significant amount of attention to health and nutrition. It’s vital to understand how the emergency food system and health care system intersect.

Executive Director Julia Tedesco gave the conference’s opening remarks and offered a famous food-related quote on which the audience could reflect.

“The food you eat can either be the safest and most powerful form of medicine, or the slowest form of poison.”

Executive Director Julia Tedesco welcomes agencies to Foodlink for the 2017 Community Food Conference on April 12.

Dr. Steve Cook, a pediatrician & internist at UR Medicine — and an expert on obesity — spoke about the research he’s done that shows how healthy food access relates to obesity, which he emphasized as a disease with multiple physical and physiological factors, rather than simply a weight issue.

A telling visual of food access in the City of Rochester was showed on a map of the city, with banana icons representing grocery stores and produce vendors, and french fry icons that represented fast food and corner stores. The fries won. By a lot.

Dr. Steve Cook delivers the keynote address on April 12.

Wednesday marked the second of three conferences Foodlink is hosting as a means of bringing its network of member agencies together to network, learn best practices, and share our successes and challenges. Foodlink has a network of nearly 500 agencies throughout its service area — those that offer emergency (food pantries, soup kitchens, etc.) and non-emergency (day cares, senior centers, etc.) food service.

After Dr. Cook’s presentation, a panel discussion followed. Panelists included Dr. Cook, Foodlink’s Mitch Gruber (Chief Programs Officer), Eat Smart New York’s Maggie Barone-McHugh and Pamela Johnson, a Nutrition Outreach amd Education Program (NOEP) coordinator with the Monroe County Legal Assistance Center.

Agency representatives also signed up for a pair of breakout sessions. Topics included: Improving Nutrition, Stretching your Budget, Food Safety, Agency Best Practices, Managing Finances, Succession Planning, Connecting with Public Health, and Fundraising.

The day concludes with a series of round-tables, where agencies can learn about various Foodlink programs, such as the Curbside Market, our Enabled Agencies program, and are various Nutrition Education options. Attendees were also given a tour of Foodlink’s new Community Kitchen. 

With two down and one to go, it’s been tremendous experience gathering so many like-minded organizations and kind-hearted people together for a talk about our community needs and how we can address them in an effective and dignified manner. 

Foodlink can’t achieve our goals without a strong network.

They know that and we know that. And we’re grateful for everything they do. 


VIDEOS: Below are two videos prepared for the conference that offer a sneak peak at what our agencies do for those in need.


VAP-time: Foodlink apple-slicing line up and running

Apples collect in a tray after being washed in Foodlink’s Value-Added Processing Center.

For the Foodlinkers hard at work inside our new Value-Added Processing Center, it seems they’ll now have to get a decent shoulder workout elsewhere.

Gone are the days of using a manual apple slicer, which required a forceful pull-down of a large, metal contraption that sliced two apples at at time, which barely yielded one case of apple slices per hour. Now, the automated line is up and running and Foodlink is slicing apples like never before.

It’s one component of the Community Kitchen that has transformed the way Foodlink serves the community.

“The joy of seeing kids eating apples that would normally be thrown away because they weren’t sliced is beyond amazing,” said Moses Ulom, Foodlink’s VAP Supervisor. “Hey, if the kids love it, then we love it too!”

The old way we sliced apples …

In 2012, Foodlink founder Tom Ferraro was approached with two apple-related issues. (1) There were kids in Wayne County schools that were eating Washington State apples. This made little sense, due to the fact that Wayne County is among the top apple-producing counties in the nation; and (2) A Cornell University study showed that children were much more likely to eat a sliced apple than a whole one if it was served to them at school. Simply put: Apple slices ended up in bellies. Whole apples ended up in trash cans.

Armed with this data, Ferraro agreed to take the idea and run with it. Foodlink’s apple-slicing operation, known as Value-Added Processing (VAP), began. 

The program showed promising growth through the first few years. Last fiscal year, Foodlink sliced and distributed more than 50,000 pounds of apples. The slices are sold to two area distributors, which then provide them to local schools.

“After planning and talking about this apple line for a year and a half, it’s incredible to see it come to life,” said Terra Keller, Foodlink’s Chief Operating Officer. “It’s a key piece to our Community Kitchen, and one that will grow to meet the needs of our community. We look forward to collaborating with more distributors so we can send even more local apples into our local schools.”

With Foodlink’s new equipment up and running, expect numbers to increase as more partnerships are secured with distributors. Foodlink also intends to distribute sliced apples to its member agencies, as well as offer them to the Summer Meals and Curbside Market programs. As apples catch on, our VAP Center also intends to process other produce options, such as diced butternut squash, and carrot and cucumber coins. 

In the first couple days of production, Foodlink’s VAP center produced 43 cases in roughly 8 hours of work. With the old method, that would have taken 43 hours — not to mention some sore shoulders.

“We started slicing apples using the hand corer, which wasn’t designed for mass production,” Ulom said. “It got even tougher as the demand for sliced apples began to increase daily. We explored many options, but none of them were efficient enough to help us accomplish our objectives. Thanks to our generous donors, Foodlink is now able to provide kids with more nutritious and delicious snacks to keep them healthy.”

The apple line is fairly complex, and incredibly long. From the apple bin to the bagger, it measures 86 feet with a few twists and turns along the way. From start to finish, here are the 10 main steps:

1) Washed
2) Dried
3) Sliced
4) Soaked
5) Sorted
6) Inspected
7) Bagged
8) Counted
9) Boxed
10) Shipped

It’s an amazing addition to Foodlink’s Community Kitchen, and certainly a dream come true for Moses and his colleagues. Getting more nutritious snacks in front of kids is essential to building a healthy, hunger-free community. 

The apples take a quick bath in citric acid to prevent browning before they are sorted into bags.