Written by Tilden Chao, November 2020

The PressBay Food Transfer Hub is a tremendous example of community businesses and volunteers leveraging their resources and extending their love to help struggling people. It is also an unparalleled opportunity for Ithaca residents to support organizations that keep our community running, during and after the pandemic. Support the PressBay Food Transfer Hub!

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Tompkins County, residents struggled to navigate a world that now seemed terribly uncertain. Store shelves were empty. Food pantries and distribution hubs limited their hours or temporarily closed their doors. But in the skeleton of a former restaurant, Melissa Madden and her volunteers at PressBay Food Transfer Hub were working day and night to keep food flowing through the community. 

The Food Transfer Hub is a project of Urban Core LLC, the real estate development company that owns Press Bay Alley and Press Bay Court. “We had a vacancy from a former restaurant, which was bad on our books,” Melissa Madden, a manager at Urban Core and director of the Food Hub, told me. But beyond the need to fill a vacant space, the Food Hub emerged in response to an immediate need from the community. Increased demand for food distribution coincided with slowing supply chains and limited operations from existing pantries in the community. Melissa, who also serves on the Tompkins Food Task Force, soon offered the PressBay location, infrastructure, and volunteer crew to help meet this increased food demand. 

The Food Hub provides two important services to the community: a food distribution hub and a free food pantry. The food distribution hub occurs weekly on Thursdays from 4:00 to 7:00 PM, and serves customers who buy goods directly from community farmers. Community members place orders with farms by Tuesday evening, farmers aggregate orders on Wednesday, and deliver orders to the food distribution hub on Thursdays. Although the Food Hub itself does not buy or sell products, it serves as an important intermediary between producers and consumers.

Melissa’s experience in operations and as a former full-time farmer helped her identify the need for a food distribution hub in town. “From my work experience and as a member of the Tompkins County Food Task Force, I knew that farmers needed ways to distribute their products,” Melissa explained. Urban Core provides food distribution services for free, whereas farmers would usually have to include the costs of distribution in product prices or make less profit by selling their products to a retailer. This service is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic, during which farmers have trouble selling and distributing their goods. 

Building Bridges: Collaboration with Friendship Donations Network

The pantry side of the Food Hub builds off of these relationships with farmers, and other connections with organizations such as Friendship Donations Network (FDN). In the spring, FDN was receiving a large amount of perishable food donations from local stores and regional producers, but struggled to find places for the food to go. The Food Hub soon became a consistent and reliable food distribution partner. On April 20, FDN and the Food Hub held their first PressBay Friendship Pantry, which distributed hundreds of pounds of fresh food to people in need. 

Now, Food Hub volunteers distribute this rescued food to members of the community every Monday from 3:00 – 5:00 PM. “We’ve gotten a lot of fantastic prepared meals from GreenStar and Wegmans, baked goods, and many other fresh foods. We also receive donations from the Farmer’s Market and other vendors that sell through our Food Hub,” Melissa explained to me. In addition to this rescued and donated food, Lively Run Dairy Farm and Creamery donates several dozen packages of goat cheese to the pantry every week. Any food that is left over after the Monday pantry goes to Loaves and Fishes or the First Street Fridge, which serves as an FDN Neighborhood Food Hub. 

But beyond being reliable and efficient, the Food Hub is also a community of love. Meaghan Sheehan Rosen, FDN’s coordinator, has worked with volunteers at the Food Hub since March. “I admire and value Melissa’s approach to the PressBay food pantry, which from the start was centered on positivity and creating a joyful experience for people coming to get food,” Meaghan told me. One way that volunteers create joy through the pantry is through a customer choice model of food distribution. This model allows people to self-select food, as opposed to taking a pre-packaged selection of the food available at the pantry. In addition to reducing food waste, this model gives people the power and dignity to choose the food that they want to eat. 

The Future of the Food Hub and How You Can Help

Although the Food Hub has adopted all the usual guidelines to maintain social distancing, the human connection between volunteers and patrons remain intact. “Melissa intentionally used the term “physical distancing” rather than “social distancing” at the start of PressBay’s operations,” Meaghan explained to me. Volunteers stood on the sidewalk to answer questions and share information, but also to offer conversation and smiles to anyone who passed by. The humanity of the Food Hub has enlivened the food justice community.

Throughout the pandemic, Urban Core LLC has donated its space and distribution and aggregation services to the community while still paying its mortgages. Volunteers also donated staff time at the Food Hub from March to the end of July. “It was important to prove that we could pull off this operation, and I’m grateful that Urban Core allowed me to do this. But we need to make sure that we can sustain this operation. Volunteerism is great, but it’s nice to have people who are consistent, especially when they need a job,” Melissa told me. In the coming months, Melissa also hopes to expand cooler size and allocate funds to farmers of color, especially those who operate small-scale farms who need to aggregate their goods to reach the market. 

Since the PressBay Food Transfer Hub quite literally popped up in the third week of March, it has taken a while to fit its financial needs into the grant-writing cycle. In the meantime, the Food Hub’s GoFundMe has raised several thousand dollars to cover volunteer hours. In the next few months, volunteers hope to raise $25,000. The Food Hub will operate until March with existing funds, with plans to continue providing distribution services post-pandemic. These plans, however, may change depending on the success of fundraising and grant-writing. 

You can donate to the PressBay Food Transfer Hub here: To learn more about the Food Hub’s services, you can visit their website, here: