ELMIRA HEIGHTS — To Natasha Thompson, the creative aspects of a food-bank operation — acquiring and providing nourishment for people in need — make for intriguing work.
"What gets me enthusiastic about food banking is, every one operates a bit differently depending on their resources," she said.
Yet folks at Food Bank of the Southern Tier, where Thompson has served as president/CEO since 2008, had became so adept at acquiring food that they ran out of physical resources. That dilemma was solved when in mid-February of this year, the food bank relocated to 388 Upper Oakwood Ave. in Elmira Heights. Bishop Matthew H. Clark is scheduled to dedicate the facility on May 10.
By moving to the former Seneca Beverage plant, the food bank now has 65,000 square feet available for storage, repacking, distribution trucks and offices. That’s more than four times the size of its former 15,000-square-foot facility on County Road 64 in Big Flats, which is in the process of being sold. Thus, the food bank can now better perform its primary function of acquiring food from businesses and the local community — food that, many times, would otherwise go unused — and getting it into the hands of the hungry.
The fact that the food bank outgrew its previous space so quickly, even though the Big Flats facility was built brand new in 1994, speaks to the organization’s tremendous growth. Thompson noted that distribution went from slightly more than 1 million pounds in 1994 to nearly 6.8 million pounds by 2009.
"We’ve gotten better at acquiring and identifying food, and we’ve gotten better at delivering food," Thompson observed.
Founded in 1981 as a program of diocesan Catholic Charities, the food bank’s humble beginnings included a staff of just two people. Today, the operation features 26 employees serving 185 hunger-relief outlets across six counties — Chemung, Steuben, Tioga, Schuyler, Tompkins and Broome.
"It’s nearly 4,000 square miles of territory. It’s huge," Thompson said.
Food pantries, soup kitchens, residential programs, shelters, programs for children and seniors, and churches of various denominations are among the entities connected with the food bank. Thompson, who has visited many of these places, noted that they’re "80 percent volunteer-run."
"The people who run these food pantries and meal programs are so dedicated to feeding people," she remarked.
Approximately 60,000 individuals in the food bank’s coverage area are at risk of not having adequate food supplies. Thompson said many of these people inhabit residences that are out of public view, have no running water and "look like they’re abandoned."
"Rural poverty is not what everyone is prepared to see," Thompson added, noting that children, senior citizens, people living on fixed incomes and those without jobs are among those at the highest risks for hunger.
Food Bank of the Southern Tier strives to meet the needs of these people through such efforts as the Mobile Food Pantry, begun in 2007, by which trucks deliver food directly to host sites in rural areas. After items are placed on tables by volunteers, people in need can take them immediately. Thompson said the food bank distributed 2.5 million pounds of food last year via the Mobile Food Pantry. Other initiatives include the BackPack Program, which provides healthy, easy-to-prepare food for children to use on weekends and holiday breaks; and the Summer Feeding Program, which offers free, nutritious meals to low-income children when school is out.
Food Bank of the Southern Tier is an affiliate of Feeding America, operating as one of eight food banks statewide in the national system. Funding support comes primarily through the community. In fact, the food bank’s recent move — and future growth — are being aided by a $5.75-million capital campaign currently underway.
"The food bank is here because of the work and dedication and support of so many people. It truly is a community enterprise," Thompson said. "We could not do what we do without hundreds of people supporting us. It’s quite incredible, the number of people involved in feeding the hungry."
Thompson said that as a Catholic Charities agency, Food Bank of the Southern Tier exemplifies the Catholic mission of serving those in greatest need. However, she said it’s vital for people to know "that the food bank is an inclusive organization, an ecumenical thing.’’
Thompson, who has worked for 10 years overall with the food bank, acknowledged that doing this type of ministry is consistently satisfying.
"Absolutely, it definitely makes you feel good at the end of the day," she said. "It’s easy to do this because I believe in it — knowing that you’re doing it for the greater good."