Graduate students respond to COVID-19 food insecurity

April 24, 2020

By Gillian Kenah

During the coronavirus outbreak, several organizations in the greater Binghamton area including Binghamton Food Rescue, the Food Bank of the Southern Tier and the Rural Health Network of South Central New York are working together and implementing new procedures to battle rising food insecurity in the community. Three Binghamton University graduate students are contributing to these efforts.

Eliana Epstein, a second-year master’s student studying sustainable communities is the director of Binghamton Food Rescue. She said her organization has seen a large increase in the families it serves, from 15 to 20 families per distribution previously to now upwards of 115 families.

Volunteers for Binghamton Food Rescue get ready to make deliveries.In adhering to CDC social distancing guidelines, Binghamton Food Rescue practices contactless drop-offs and calls recipients instead of knocking or ringing doorbells when making deliveries. Additionally, Binghamton Food Rescue requires volunteers to sanitize their cars prior to making deliveries, provides volunteers with masks and gloves, encourages frequent hand-washing and staggers deliveries to avoid too many volunteers together at once. 

“We have received an outpouring of support from the community,” Epstein said. “Much more social media interaction, donations and kind messages. We are so proud of our community and humbled to be a part of it.”

Erica Miner, a second-year master’s student studying public administration is the programs and partnerships coordinator at the Food Bank of the Southern Tier. She said the organization has, at times, had to change its procedures on an hourly basis to maintain safe operations.

Due to social distancing concerns, Miner said the organization had to cancel all of their mobile pantries — their biggest outlet for providing food. Since then, they have started using schools and churches as drop-off points, particularly in Broome County.

The Food Bank sends 600 boxes weekly to the Endwell United Methodist Church for volunteers to pack for pickup at the church. Additionally, the organization conducts three-hour-long Community Food Distributions (CFDs) in each county they serve, which clients can sign up for ahead of time. Recipients drive up and pop their trunks, receiving one box of perishable food and one box of non-perishable food.

The Food Bank is also serving more families now than they have in the past.

“Our pantries have been amazing and are continuing to run as normal — some even have increased hours,” Miner said. “They have taken precautions and limited how many volunteers are at each distribution, but have increased the amount of food given out.”

Tom Lewis is a first-year graduate student studying public administration and the community food coordinator at the Rural Health Network of South Central New York. He directs project management, event planning, volunteer recruitment and technical assistance for community food projects across the service area. Lewis was an AmeriCorps VISTA member for two years with the Rural Health Network but is now a staff member. 

For the Rural Health Network, community partnerships have been key to reaching as many families as possible. In Broome County, they have teamed up with the United Way to recruit volunteers to deliver and pack emergency meal kits at the Community Hunger Outreach Warehouse. So far, 31 community volunteers have put in 132 hours of service at this hub. 

The Rural Health Network also collaborates with the Food Bank of the Southern Tier to register participants and deliver meals. 

AmeriCorps members are also assisting partner organizations in Delaware and Tioga Counties with food distribution efforts, according to Lewis and his colleague Cindy Martin, the director of resource development at the Rural Health Network. Staff members are assisting the Broome County Office for Aging Meals on Wheels program, delivering meals to residents in northern Broome County three days a week.

The Rural Health Network, too, has seen changes in its routine services. Above all, they have seen increased phone contact with “particularly vulnerable rural and elderly clients” who are socially isolated. The organization anticipates serving more people as the pandemic continues, especially among the elderly community.

Donate to Binghamton Food Rescue, Food Bank of the Southern Tier and Rural Health Network.

Photo-banner: Volunteers serve clients at a Food Bank of the Southern Tier drive-thru Community Food Distribution at the Chemung County Fairgrounds in Elmira, N.Y. on April 17, 2020. Photo-right: Volunteers for Binghamton Food Rescue get ready to make deliveries.