Currently, the national unemployment rate sits somewhere between 15 and 20 percent, with more than 30 million unemployment claims filed since the coronavirus shutdown. With no source of income, the number of people experiencing food insecurity has skyrocketed, increasing pressure on food banks and pantries.
While the situation has left local and state governments fumbling to take care of their residents, in Ulster County one new initiative is blossoming. Project Resilience was announced on March 17 with the two-pronged mission of feeding families in need and supporting the local restaurant industry. While operating for the last six weeks, the project has been able to provide over 67,000 meals to residents in need in nearly every town in the county (Hardenburg is the only town not participating). Project Resilience has provided meals to 7,000 households, nearly 4 percent of the county’s total population.
View this post on Instagram
With over 10,000 meals served, and hundreds of volunteers and partners, Project Resilience has shown what the wave of goodwill from across Ulster County can do. I want to thank the individuals and organizations who have generously stepped up to contribute to this effort, and I want to assure our residents that we are here for you. This is what it looks like when a community comes together. We are creating a model for both our state and nation of how to respond to this crisis. I continue to be tremendously impressed by the resiliency and generosity of the people of Ulster County. More information: bit.ly/ProjectResilienceUC Support or sign-up for Project Resilience: covid19.ulstercountyny.gov/project-resilience/
“When the project launched in March, the existing safety net of food assistance like food banks and pantries hadn’t had a chance to catch up with the increase in demand,” says Amanda LaValle, Director of Ulster County Department of the Environment, and facilitator of Project Resilience. Since the start of the public health crisis, local food banks have seen nearly a 400 percent increase in those seeking food assistance.
What started with a dozen restaurants now boasts a roster of almost 130 local businesses providing meals to their communities. Ulster residents requesting assistance are given three meals a week for as long as they need meal assistance during the pandemic.
Within just 24 hours of the project’s launch, County Executive Pat Ryan was able to secure $2 million in funding. An additional $177,000 has been donated by area residents through a GoFundMe page set up by the United Way of Ulster County, which is partnering with the County to facilitate this program. The ambitious fundraising goal of $5 million is the equivalent of the cost of a week’s worth of groceries for every single resident in the county.
While feeding local families, the program also provides a crucial financial boost to the restaurants, which have had to close their doors to diners. “Many of my staff have been laid off, which is saddening because we’ve become a family. We are doing as much take out as we can to serve our customer base and pay the bills. Unfortunately, it’s not easy for any restaurant owners right now,” says Eric Cafaro, owner of Tony and Nicks Italian Kitchen, Country Club Grill and Palizzata, which are all participating in Project Resilience.
- Photo courtesy of Tony and Nick's Italian Kitchen
All Hands On Deck
Every week, meals requests are divvied up by municipality between the list of restaurants participating in that area. Restaurants are then paid by project funding for meals they provide, injecting a much-needed stream of income while they battle loss of revenue amid social distancing orders.
Every weekend, participating restaurants receive their order for the coming week. “We make these meals in extremely large amounts. Sometimes we have to do 200 meals in one night,” says Cafaro. Between his three restaurants, Cafaro has already contributed over 1,000 meals to the program.
Ryan has partially repurposed UCAT (Ulster County Area Transit) vehicles and drivers to both transport meals from restaurants to centralized distribution centers and also to deliver meals to those who can’t leave their house or pick them up themselves.
Kingston-based tech company Exago pitched in to help solve data management issues involved with such a large-scale effort, donating over a hundred development hours to architect a solution. “We found that the spreadsheet was cumbersome, and information was getting lost or changed without any traceability. This resulted in inaccuracies in delivery information, among other challenges,” says Stephanie Alinsug, Communications and Development Coordinator for Rise Up Kingston, and key player in running the Kingston Emergency Food Collaborative.
Looking to the Future
As the crisis evolves, the focus of the project is shifting to connecting those in need with traditional food assistance programs like food pantries. “Federal money for food banks is coming in, SNAP benefits are changing, curbside pickup is more widely available. Maybe what people need now is groceries, not prepared meals,” LaValle says. “It’s important for us now to connect those we’ve been helping out for the last few weeks to those resources like food pantries because the needs of those we provide assistance for are changing now.”
After surveying the needs of existing local food assistance programs and consumer demand, Project Resilience recently started to provide funds to food pantries to support their efforts to distribute groceries.
Project Resilience is continuing to offer meal assistance and other help to those impacted by the pandemic To request meal assistance, or sign up as a participating restaurant or business, visit the county’s Project Resilience page for more information.