Feeding the region’s needy with rescued food

Written by Sara Pines, founder of Friendship Donations Network. Published in the Ithaca Journal February 12, 2018. 

Friendship Donations Network was founded in 1988 as a response to my visit to migrant labor camps in Sodus, NY where I witnessed extreme hunger and poverty.  In contrast, I observed abundance of food and food waste in Ithaca parallel with Ithaca’s more hidden hunger and poverty. This guided my mission to rescue fresh perishable, nutritious food for our neighbors in need, to diminish environmental degradation caused by feeding landfills instead of hungry people; and to develop a model for a volunteer-run food rescue programs on a “shoestring budget”.

Today, 30 years later, FDN volunteers reroute 1,000 to 1,500 pounds of donated food each day from Ithaca’s markets, campuses and food producers.  The food is fresh and nutritious, but unsalable (day-old, blemished, nearing sell-by date). Hundreds of volunteers pick up, deliver and distribute rescued food to 50 local food pantries and programs that help 2,000 people each week. In January, FDN was honored with the Not-for-Profit Agency of the Year award from the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce recognizing the efforts of so many who help their neighbors in need.

Since I founded FDN, I have often felt the organization was guided by a blessing. That seemed to be the case in 2008 when Cornell’s student dining program was delivering a truck full of perishable food donations to our storage shed that adjoined a church. A funeral was in progress, and the church parking area was full.  Suddenly, a “miracle” happened: the cars drove out and the truck pulled in; 20 food pantries and programs emptied the truck quickly. A parishioner explained that they were driving to the cemetery and would be back to continue the service.

Over the years, FDN developed a reliable roster of food donors. Wegmans is our largest and most generous donor, supplying 500 to 1,000 pounds of food each day since 1991. Seven days a week, volunteers pick up food from donors and distribute it to pantries and low-income feeding programs the same day its donated. Volunteers use their own vehicles, gas and phones to coordinate pickups and deliveries. Until 2013, FDN had no office, staff, budget, funding, board of directors, vehicles, phones, refrigerators or freezers.

Judy Dietz came to FDN’s rescue when FDN desperately needed someone to take over as director. She was a brilliant leader. But instead of becoming the director, she recruited a board of directors who became the director.  The board developed and staffed committees for fundraising, operations, finances and publicity. Later, local food hubs were set up to rescue surplus seasonal produce of neighborhood gardeners. The board hired a professional part-time coordinator, Meaghan Sheehan Rosen, MSW. The lean organizational structure and its dedicated volunteers and donors allow FDN to efficiently deliver nearly 200 tons of food each year.

Judy died in 2012, but her spirit lives on at the Just Be Cause Center, 1013 W. State St., Ithaca. The center was founded by Jerry Dietz and family to honor Judy’s work. Today, it houses several nonprofit organizations, including FDN’s first office, food storage and work areas where the mission of providing nutritious, surplus food for our neighbors in need and reducing food waste continues each day.

FDN would not exist without the amazing volunteers who dedicate their time to rescuing food and reducing hunger in our communities. More information on volunteering at FDN can be found at http://www.friendshipdonations.org/volunteer.

 Sara Pines is a long-time leader in local efforts to address hunger, poverty and injustice. She received a bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College, a master’s degree from Hunter College’s School of Social Work and a doctorate from Cornell University. She continues to rescue food, household furnishings and clothes.