Feeding the community, adapting to change

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 4/28/20

SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — In unpredictable times, the Catskills Food Hub (CHF) is staying adaptable. Not long after getting started as a wholesale distributor of local foods to restaurants and …

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Feeding the community, adapting to change

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SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — In unpredictable times, the Catskills Food Hub (CHF) is staying adaptable. Not long after getting started as a wholesale distributor of local foods to restaurants and businesses, the CFH team realized they also wanted to connect the region’s agricultural community with its year-round consumers. Established as a nonprofit organization just over a year ago, the food hub’s mission is to strengthen the area’s farming economy, provide consumers with access to fresh, local food and improve the overall health of Sullivan County in the process. Now, like many organizations, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted the nonprofit to once again reimagine that mission so that it can help prevent residents from going hungry during this crisis.

CFH’s existing retail program “grew exponentially” after the pandemic hit, executive director Caitlin Wilson said. The program’s design fits neatly into the needs of self-quarantining consumers; online orders and pickup locations in Liberty, Livingston Manor, Mamakating/Wurtsboro and Margaretville allow for “contact-free grocery shopping.” For those who are struggling to pay for groceries during the statewide shutdown that has left many out of work, CFH has partnered with Sullivan Allies Leading Together (SALT), the Cornell Cooperative Extension and a group called ENGN to create a food box program. Supplied by local producers, the CFH team boxes food staples like milk, eggs, bread, potatoes and pasta and sends it out to families.

“We were able to do this with a grant through the Sullivan Orange Community Foundation,” Wilson said. A grant for $5,000 “jumpstarted” the program, however, thanks to an “incredible response from the public,” Wilson is hopeful that the various organizations are going to be able to continue providing food boxes for a few weeks longer than the initial grant allowed.

Not only has COVID-19 impacted families’ abilities to keep food on the table, but it has had catastrophic effects on some of the producers of that food. Regional dairy farmers, in particular, have been hard hit by widespread closings of businesses, schools and restaurants which has caused a glut in the dairy supply chain. Wilson said that CFH has been able to support two family dairy farms by purchasing dairy products from Bethel Creamery for both its retail and food box program.

“We can’t fill the giant hole left by the pandemic, but we are definitely trying,” Wilson said.

The CFH team’s efforts to fill that hole, while also temporarily shifting away from its focus on wholesale markets, has kept them quite busy. Wilson said its retail customer base went from 20 to 200 in the course of two weeks.

“The growth was so incredible that we actually took a week, we kind of reset and now we’ve got our ducks in a row so that we can accommodate such a large growth,” she said. “Once the pandemic has calmed, we would love to continue offering the retail program and also are excited to work with our wholesale customers again; we’d like to find a balance.”

Wilson stressed that she is the only full-time CFH staff member; aside from her and a part-time driver, the nonprofit is entirely volunteer-based from its board members to those who come in and help pack the food.

“We’re so grateful for them, and we couldn’t do it without them,” she said.

To learn more about the CFH, get involved, make a donation or shop for local foods online, visit www.catskillsfoodhub.org.

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