Josh Knoblock, Manager, South Wedge Food Program, 68 Ashland St. outside the Calvary Presbyterian Church [Photo: David Kramer, 9/10/20]
In The New Life Food Cupboard on Monroe Avenue at Temple Beth Sholom is still open!, we learned the New Life Cupboard has stayed open throughout the pandemic. One of its three volunteers, Janis, also volunteers at the South Wedge Food Program on 68 Ashland St. at the Calvary Presbyterian Church. Janis suggested I visit.Last week I did, where I met the program’s manager Josh Knoblock who explained how the pantry — with various adjustments — also has been able to meet the needs of its patrons during the pandemic.
In January, Josh volunteered at SWFP. Shortly thereafter, as he says, “the world fell apart” when covid-19 hit. Given his background in food service, management and in the non-profit sector, Josh discovered his skill set could be effectively utilized as the pandemic strained the program’s resources. Josh moved from volunteer to full time manager.
Talker: Who does the SWFP serve? Who supplies the food and how is it distributed? You mentioned that offering nutritional food is a priority. How do you ensure that patrons receive a healthy and balanced diet?
Josh: The South Wedge Food Program serves all of Rochester and the adjoining zip codes. As a FoodLink partner we get most of our food from them and follow their guidance on giving out the most nutritious selection possible.
Talker: When the pandemic hit, you faced basic logistical problems just in terms of social distancing, masking, keeping a hygienic work space, etc. How did the program reorient to face these challenges?
Josh: The most immediate issues were that requests for our service increased drastically and we were no longer able to invite those in need into the building to do as in-person shop through. A lot of people stepped up and started making cloth masks for us so the need was met fairly early on for us and the rest of the solutions like providing delivery and giving out prepacked bags at the door just evolved out of necessity.Talker: At the peak of the pandemic, as did stores throughout Rochester, the pantry was inundated with panicked patrons seeking non-perishable canned goods and non-food items like toilet paper. Reverend Katie Jo Suddaby, Executive Director of the ROC Salt Center, the umbrella organization that includes SWFP, says she told worried patrons that when the need was great, Rochestarians always responded generously. Did you fear that demand would dangerously outstrip supply and did you see the generosity of Rochestarians come forth? Josh: Yes, we couldn’t help but think, in the back of our minds, that we might not be able to keep pace with demand. But at the end of the day we were able to meet the needs of everyone, with help of the community. Whether it was in the form of individuals donating to food drives or just stopping by with what they had to spare, community gardens and their fresh produce, Foodlink rallying resources to keep the trucks coming, we were shown a huge amount of support that let us continue uninterrupted.
Talker: In many ways, pantry use is a barometer of local economic trends. Run us through the numbers before the pandemic when the economy was relatively good, when the pandemic peaked, when the pandemic began to recede, when unemployment benefits expired and where we are now. How are you anticipating pantry use going forward during this pandemic economy? Is there a silver lining in that more people are now aware of the healthy food options the pantry offers?
Josh: The numbers show what you’d probably expect. At the beginning there was a high demand that reached about 500%, as the initial panic subsided it went to around 300% compared to the pre-pandemic numbers. And it has stayed steady around there with some busier days recently that could be linked to people who are no longer getting the federal unemployment. Regardless of the reason we are here for those in need and are glad people are aware we are open and welcome them to call or visit once a month.
Talker: On the day I visited, from the the Alison Clarke Garden on the church grounds, I brought home a giant head of cabbage and had my eye on a pumpkin for Halloween. Tell us about the garden.Josh: The vegetable garden as well as the other gardens are taken care of by the Friends of Calvary St Andrews Church. They grow a variety of vegetables like tomatoes, greens, carrots. On the mornings we are open their volunteers harvest and wash them and then pass them on to us to give out with our other groceries.
Moving forward, a new program will be Saturday morning educational forums organized by Reverend Katie Jo Suddaby and facilitated by Tonya Noel Stevens. As explained by Katie Jo:
The program on Saturdays will allow for groups to engage in volunteerism with the food program, and then participate in a discussion on the underlying causes of food insecurity, in our community. It is an opportunity for everyone to learn more about problems we see our clients deal with everyday, that they may or may not have experienced in their own lives.
On Saturday, I joined members of the Rotary Club who volunteered in the morning and then participated in a discussion on food insecurity with Tonya, Co-founder of the Flower City Noire Collective and the Director of Cause and Effect Greenspace.Tonya offered an overview of the impact of historical and institutional racism on food security in Rochester. The conversation was wide ranging. At one point, we talked about how to build solidarity between urban people of color and white rural people who both suffer from limited access to healthy, affordable food. One women who works with rural populations says she generally avoids the academic sounding term “white privilege.” Instead, she talks about “unearned privilege,” that is, socio-economic privileges that perpetuate food insecurity and disparate health outcomes.