Collaborative in Name and in Nature
Kingston Emergency Food Collaborative- Kingston, NY
This year has been a challenging one to say the least. The pandemic hit a lot of communities intensely and abruptly. Each day that went by was another day of uncertainty that led some to wonder if they were going to have a job the next day, what impacts the virus would have on their health, how their business was going to be affected, or where their next meal would come from. Most cities have contingency plans for hurricanes or floods but none were prepared for something like this.
About 46% of children get meal assistance in Ulster County, New York, so when schools closed back in March, many were left without meals that they depended on from their school. In Kingston, a city 2 hours away from New York City, in an effort to provide food access during COVID-19, the Kingston Emergency Food Collaborative (KEFC) was born. This collaborative partnership between grassroots orgs, local government and community members began as a way to support the 3,000 students of Kingston City School District but has transformed exponentially.
In name and in nature they are collaborative. The coalition of 17 community organizations each take on different aspects of this collaborative to meet the needs of the over 4,000 people that have reached out for food. The Everette Hodge Community Center and YMCA were already providing meals for children and continued to provide this support as distribution hubs, food pantries like People’s Place and Catholic Charities had a commercial kitchen infrastructure, Project Resilience helped provide meals prepared by local restaurants, Hudson Valley Farm Hub and others provided fresh produce, the City of Kingston provided supplies and manpower to support this venture and many other groups and community members volunteered their time and other resources to make this happen.
Executive Director of the People’s Place (an org participating in the KEFC), Christine Hein says it best when describing who comes to the food distribution stations, “The clientele has ‘no average face’. It’s anybody. It’s across the board. People who were totally fine now need food.” One of the benefits that makes the KEFC’s program so unique and unusual is that there are no restrictions on who can get food. There are no IDs necessary and no proof of need required, which has been a game changer for their work. Food insecurity doesn’t look a certain way. Anyone who calls can get food. That is a value that KEFC holds highly as they aim to work out of a place of abundance. People from all throughout the community take advantage of the KEFC’s meal distribution work. They have a hotline set up for anyone who needs food. The KEFC’s work often pops up on Kingston NY Mutual Aid Facebook Group as a contact for people that need meals or groceries.
When you speak to the people directly involved in this process, there is an overwhelming sense of solidarity between them and the people they work with. Some working 14 hour shifts, more than 488 volunteers have dedicated nearly 13,000 hours of their time to support the KEFC. Whether that is packing food onsite, answering the hotline, driving and delivering groceries, organizing volunteers, or even restaurants volunteering to cook meals for Thanksgiving week, there is a sense of a shared vision of a better food system. Troy Ellen Dixon, the Program and Marketing Director of the AJ Williams-Myers African Roots Center explains,
“There’s a comradery that’s developed. There are people who I’ve been talking to on a weekly basis since March that I’ve never met in person, but I feel so close to them...The desire to keep going is supported by the fact that we have a very cohesive and supportive group”.
As the months roll by, the KEFC has made changes both intentional and organic to create a more efficient and sustainable model. It has been a learning process. They’ve progressed from tens of google spreadsheets to a better system of organizing operations. Their action plans have evolved with the pandemic to attack different areas of food injustice to create long term solutions to food insecurity. The three main areas they are developing are, direct service, which is to continue food distribution work and sourcing; supporting food sovereignty in education; and long term system change, which deals with tackling bigger and broader food justice work in the community such as the housing issues and food access. The work continues to be collaborative. The people and organizations that have the resources and time, are figuring out what projects they are best suited to dedicate their work to create a complementary team. During the end of the summer, when there was a decrease in COVID-19 cases, the question was brought up about taking the word “emergency” out of the name. The point was made that “as long as people need food, it’s an emergency”. These words drive the KEFC’s mission and desire to continue the work. As long as there is a need for food, the KEFC will provide it.
With such a great response from the Kingston community and support for this kind of work, other efforts to build community food sovereignty have arisen. Recently, as a collaborative effort between Kingston Food Co-op and the community, 2 neighborhood fridges have popped up in Kingston (independent of the KEFC’s work). It’s another great indication of this community coming together to fight food insecurity.
As the school year is progressing, the COVID-19 response is changing, and a bulk of volunteers have returned to work, the KEFC continues its mission. In the beginning they were making it up as they went along but they were always clear on their values. Their flexibility and passion have allowed this program to blossom into a valuable instrument. That progress is largely due to their collaborative partnerships. Emily Flynn explained that these relationships were imperative to the rapid response when the schools closed in the spring.
“It shows the gap that we were missing in our community, that we’re fulfilling even past COVID. Many of these agencies, although doing wonderful work, didn’t have redundancy plans for each other so if one of them went down, there is a hole. We’ve made these really amazing bonds with each other so when the schools shut down, within 24-48 we are able to quickly respond and get together 300 meals”.
The Hodge Center supplied a distribution hub. People’s Place offered a kitchen. Tilda’s Kitchen provided food. The Salvation Army provided van transport. This is just one example of the community support that has continued strong throughout the crisis.
This exact model of rapid food response might be difficult to replicate in other small cities like Kingston because of the unique key factors that allowed it to happen. “Ulster Corps, Family of Woodstock and People’s Place all had existing infrastructure and routines in place that we were able to plug into, to a certain extent (though we maxed out the capacity of those orgs pretty quickly). We have a lot of NGOs and CBOs in Kingston who were able to redirect our energy towards this work,” explains Katy Kondrat of Kingston Food Coop. Through a private foundation funding multiple organizations that were part of this collaborative, there were people that had time and capacity to jump into this project, which is not typical. Flynn, who works as the Director of Health and Wellness for Kingston explains, “I don’t know of another small city like ours that has a Director of Health and Wellness. It’s really unusual. If that had not been the case, there would not be someone at the city level who could directly support this work and continue to do so”. She suggests researching your own city’s food council or organizations like Eat Well that allow groups working towards community food access and initiatives to network and build. One of the reasons the KEFC was so successful was because of the capacity and coalition building between these kinds of groups, and that is something other cities or small communities could emulate. Troy Ellen adds that a key factor into the KEFC’s success was that it was non hierarchical. Another member of the coalition, Katrina Light, Manager of the Hudson Valley Farm Hub highlights that points, “The initiative was entirely grass-roots, with no hierarchy; whoever wanted to jump in, did and we all found our niche.” The goal was not to go into neighborhoods and put a bandaid on the food issues, but rather to work with people in the affected communities to hear their needs and to create a relationship that is meaningful and long lasting. It is crucial to identify the people already in place that can work on these types of projects.
Food distribution has decreased since its peak a few months ago. At the height of the pandemic they were providing 3000 meals and scheduling 50 volunteer shifts a day. That’s led to over 305,000 meals given out since March. That has slowed a bit but there is still a core group of volunteers that deliver food to about 40 families a week. The KFEC has transitioned from providing meals, to delivering groceries which has been a more sustainable choice for the operation. They have been able to turn “controlled chaos” as Troy Ellen says, into a more streamlined, efficient process. She quotes another member of the coalition and says ”We’re leading from a place of abundance. That’s true, not only in providing people with food, but in providing each other the support and the thought partnership. We care a lot about each other.”.
If you would like to support the KEFC’s work, you can donate, or sign up to volunteer. If you are in need of food, you can call their hotline 888-316-0879. The KEFC also offers some other resources on their website for people who need food or Ulster County COVID-19 information.