Foodlink ‘gamechangers’ get to work

From left, Tom Silva, Florence Clemmons, Livia Marques and Margaret Liljedahl.


A grant from the Wallace Center at Winrock International brought three Foodlink staffers down to New Orleans last week to participate in the center’s Food Systems Leadership Network (FSLN) inaugural Gamechangers Laboratory.

Foodlink applied to the grant opportunity this summer and survived a rigorous selection process to be one of three organizations out of dozens nationwide to join the lab. Florence Clemmons, Margaret Liljedahl and Tom Silva — who have all played key roles in Foodlink’s various community health programs — were charged with developing methods to shift Foodlink away from simply serving the community, to engaging with and working alongside community members to end hunger.

Here’s how Foodlink’s winning project was summarized by the Wallace Center:

“Traditional food banking alone cannot fix the inequities in our food system. Foodlink’s Community Health Team is seeking to transform the conventional model from community-based to community-driven and led, and explore how food banks can shift from social service to social change. This three-member team from Rochester, New York, with its community connections, innovative spirit, and history of collaboration will work in partnership with its Foodlink clients and community members to pilot new and lasting solutions.”

Clemmons has been a manager for the Curbside Market — Foodlink’s mobile farmers market — for more than six years, while Liljedahl leads Foodlink’s nutrition education department. Silva is Foodlink’s Community Advocacy Specialist and leads the Curbside Ambassadors Program, which empowers residents in affordable housing communities to advocate for the market and promote community health.

“We’re looking forward to working with the FSLN Gamechangers Lab to further develop our innovative community health programs and create action plans to democratize them by putting community members in the driver’s seat of their design and impact,” said Meg Demment, Foodlink’s Chief Impact Officer.

Two other grant-funded teams — ReFresh Food Collaborative of New Orleans and GRRO Good Bowls of North Carolina — also attended last week’s conference. The teams spent time learning how to apply structural thinking, design planning, and other tools to their community food projects. Foodlink worked with its adviser, Livia Marques, who led the United States Department of Agriculture’s “People’s Garden Initiative.” Marques took a program that began with a single garden at USDA headquarters in 2009, and transformed it into a movement that led to thousands of volunteers tending more than 1,600 gardens across every state and donating more than 1.3 million pounds of produce to neighborhood feeding programs.

Foodlink will go through a 6-month creative journey to design new strategies for tackling food insecurity through community-based food systems. In March, Foodlink will return to New Orleans and present their collective learnings to a national audience and a group of potential funders at the 2020 National Good Food Network Conference.

Get ready to Check Out Hunger at Wegmans

A crucial fundraiser for Foodlink begins this weekend at Wegmans Food Markets, where shoppers have the opportunity to donate and support the regional food bank’s mission of ending hunger and building healthier communities.

Check Out Hunger officially launches Oct. 27 at more than 20 Rochester-area Wegmans locations. The campaign extends through Nov. 30.

“Our food banking operations and many of our food-related programs rely on these donations, and year after year, Wegmans and their shoppers always come through with generous support,” said Foodlink President & CEO Julia Tedesco. “We’re looking forward to another successful campaign as we approach the holiday season and work with our community partners to put food on the table for thousands of families in our region.”

Shoppers can donate $2, $3 or $5 – or round up their grocery bull – when they check out, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to Foodlink. For more than 40 years, Foodlink has served as the food bank for 10 counties in the Finger Lakes region, and has launched innovative programs that address the root causes of hunger in our communities.

Last year, the 25th year of the campaign, Wegmans customers raised $3,295,214 nationwide, including more than $680,000 to benefit Foodlink.

As the holiday season approaches, please consider a donation to Foodlink and help us Check Out Hunger.

Our testimony at Rochester’s public hearing on the New York Health Act

The following testimony was delivered by Tom Silva, Foodlink’s Community Advocacy Specialist, at an Oct. 10 public hearing in Rochester about the New York Health Act.

Who We Are

Thank you for this opportunity to comment on the vital issue of health insurance and medical coverage in New York State. My name is Tom Silva, and I am the Community Advocacy Specialist 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 10 surrounding counties. We work with hundreds of partner organizations to distribute over 19 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 mobile farmers market, visits over 90 locations every week and conducted over 40,000 transactions last year to help residents in underserved communities access fresh produce.

Our market and other community health programs work in partnership with several hospitals, family medicine centers, and federally qualified health centers to connect low-income individuals at risk of diet-related illnesses to fresh, affordable produce as part of their treatment plans. In many ways, Foodlink is partially responsible for the health care and wellbeing of the most vulnerable people in our region. For this reason, we believe it is our responsibility to speak today in favor of the New York Health Act to guarantee medical coverage to our clients, program participants, and all New Yorkers.

Why We Are Here

Food insecurity refers to the 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 health care, and purchasing nutritionally adequate foods.

According to Map the Meal Gap, Feeding America’s study of hunger nationwide, over 2.2 million (or 11.4% of) New Yorkers are food insecure for at least part of the year. 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%. Among food-insecure households, reduced access to nutritious foods increases the risk for poor health and chronic disease such as diabetes and hypertension. Food insecurity can also cause people to skip or delay medication, refills, and preventative health visits – complicating disease self-management and continuing the cycle of poor health. Food insecurity is also associated with increased health care utilization with regards to emergency department visits, inpatient visits, and length of stay, contributing to up to 3.4 billion dollars in additional health care costs annually.

In many ways, one of the best ways to lower health care costs in New York would be to decrease food insecurity through programs and policies that put food, knowledge, and money directly into the hands of people experiencing food insecurity. While that would help large numbers of people, it would not solve some of our clients’ most pressing issue: the skyrocketing costs of health care services and their lack of ability to pay for them. Feeding America’s Hunger Study (conducted in 2014), showed that that 66% of households reported choosing between paying for food and medical care each year. 30% made that tradeoff every month. The report also found that 55% of surveyed clients at emergency food programs across the country had unpaid medical bills. To quote their report directly:

“Even with insurance, unpaid medical bills can accumulate due to deductibles and uncovered care. Most household compositions show high levels of unpaid medical bills, but the burden is highest among households containing at least one child and at least one senior, at 64.9 percent. The group with the lowest rate of unpaid medical bills is households with at least one senior, in which nearly half (49.6 percent) of households still face unpaid bills.” – Feeding America Hunger Study, 2014, page 120

These issues are personal for Foodlink’s program participants. Just two weeks ago, I conducted a focus group with clients at the HOPE Center Keuka Food Pantry in Penn Yan about the reasons they needed emergency food that month. Almost everyone had a story about unpaid medical bills from their own family or strangers they met in line at their local pantry. One woman’s husband was recently diagnosed with diabetes and was prescribed a medication that would have cost them $500 out of pocket monthly. When she told the doctor that they couldn’t afford it, the doctor said ‘well you have terrible insurance,’ to which she responded ‘well that’s the best we can afford.’ After berating them for drawing down on social security, the doctor said that her husband would likely die soon anyway and it wasn’t worth pursuing other treatment. While this doctor is probably an outlier, the failure of the private insurance market to meet the health care needs of people in our region certainly is not.

What We Ask

Because we cannot eliminate hunger without addressing the health care crisis, we have come to give public testimony today in support of the New York Health Act. Eliminating private insurance and providing single payer coverage will lower the cost of both treatment and medication, leaving more money in people’s pockets for food, education, and other necessities. We believe that this bill will offer all New Yorkers the best chance at receiving comprehensive medical coverage that will allow them to become healthy and self-sufficient. Because this legislation is a critical step in moving our communities from hunger to health, we urge you to pass and implement the New York Health Act.