GENEVA — Almost overnight, the Boys & Girls Club of Geneva had become a major food operation. It started with feeding club members after the coronavirus closed schools, and it quickly expanded as lost paychecks left many other families with children and seniors struggling.
So when friends at the Cornell AgriTech campus in Geneva informed the club about Cornell’s on-campus dairy in Ithaca, the club saw an opportunity to add inexpensive milk to family larders along with its nightly dinner, we rented a refrigerated truck to do the pickups and hit the road.
What has happened over the next two weeks has been eye opening.
The need to distribute thousands of gallons of milk quickly pushed our club vans and truck out into the countryside. There, in towns with fewer non-profit organizations, school districts were turning themselves into food hubs, working with non-profits to keep food in the homes of hourly workers now left without paychecks. The offer to share was greeted with joy.
At Friendship House in little Middlesex, 225 monthly food pantry visitors had suddenly risen to 771.
“There are people without unemployment, without checks, we’re seeing many new families,’’ said Cora Marvin, that charity’s chief. “When we heard about free milk, we said ‘Yes! Where?’’’
There were lines at the pantries in Lyons. When word of milk arriving came, drivers from more distant Wayne County towns traveled in to get some for distribution. The urgency was palpable.
Jay Roscup, a Wayne County school contractor, quickly put together a network of SUV and pickup owners from around the county to race the cold milk to North Rose, Wolcott, Red Creek, Clyde and Savannah.
“We’re using schools and pantries to store the milk and get it out to families that need help,’’ Roscup said. “There is significant need.’’
The more we saw conditions outside Geneva, the more we realized the food challenges of this pandemic are greater than they might now appear. In Geneva, the city school district and the Boys & Girls Club were serving more than 1,000 meals per week, even as the Center of Concern and the Salvation Army saw exponential year-over-year growth in demand at their modest pantries.
And with the school year coming to an end, it has suddenly become clear that the normal reduction that comes with the end of school-year food operations could lead to a pandemic food crisis this summer. A task force of Geneva non-profits, ably chaired by Bill Simon, who heads the Center of Concern board, has been discussing this coming challenge. The committee does not take votes and has no civil authority. Few city, town or county elected officials participate directly and setting a community agenda for action is difficult lacking what I refer to as an “Andrew Cuomo” for Geneva — a civic leader shaping consensus for collective action.
Still, some ideas have emerged — some of them mine — and I share them here as possible ways of scaling Geneva’s reaction to this continuing crisis:
• Continue school-year feeding patterns through July and August. That will require federal funding and permission to deliver (already granted), but still just supplies a modest lunch to school age children only.
• Extend state and federal feeding programs executed by non-profits — like the Boys & Girls Club of Geneva — so hot meals like those now produced and delivered by the Boys & Girls Club can continue through the summer. Donations have allowed the club to extend these meals beyond children.
• Create a Geneva Food Hub at the City’s Recreation Center, promoted and managed by the city’s staff. That could be an all-weather home for the Farmers Market and allow merchants permanent summer stalls with electricity, the potential for refrigeration and more than enough space to spread out. Integration between non-profits and food purveyors with Boys & Girls Club vans could offer free Saturday transportation to this market from throughout the city.
Geneva could aspire to this goal: No Hunger This Summer!
Thus far, Geneva has been a model community. Donors to non-profits have been generous. This is a community of warm hearts and caring. But this test, it appears, will be more of a marathon than a sprint. We need to work together to get our children outdoors and learning.
Over the last three years, the Boys & Girls Club and the City School District, with partners at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, have operated Summer University, virtually eliminating the dreaded “summer learning loss” with an integrated program of fun, field trips and intellectual engagement. It will take innovation to keep this going in an atmosphere in which we must “decentralize” our population. The schools, the club and our HWS partners are committed to finding a way:
• The Boys & Girls Club re-opens and staffs several city Pocket Parks — say Neider, Gulvin, Jefferson, Richards, Washington Street. All kids grades 4 to 12 sign up and attend for art activities and sports throughout the day. A school lunch is delivered to the parks every day.
• An evening community meal is delivered each evening to those in need.
• Club vans circulate small groups to the Carter Road club for gym and distant learning lessons with school partners in rooms disinfected after each use.
• Information on families in need are shared with the city’s Food Hub and resources tapped from local non-profits and donors to meet this crisis need.
This scenario may or may not be where we end up when state health department guidelines are established for summer. But it does suggest that a full community, working together, can address the needs of our children, families and seniors as this crisis moves through summer.
Geneva is a caring city. Our City School District and our partners at HWS have already moved mountains. Working together, we can handle this longer challenge. We can do this.