Cornell University in partnership with the Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC) and the Food Bank of the Southern Tier (FBST) launched a food pantry in late March offering free food to those in need every Tuesday and Thursday.
Cornell had opened a food pantry on its campus last fall that is available to Cornell students, staff and faculty, and the school committed to keeping it open through the spring semester despite the decision to cancel in-person classes and send most students home.
The community food pantry initiative, meanwhile, aims to serve members of the greater Ithaca and Tompkins County community to help close the gap of an estimated 800 households per month losing services as several area food pantries have been forced to close.
At the pantry, Cornell staff gives out boxes of food staples as well as frozen items at GIAC’s basketball court. The prepacked boxes contain three days’ worth of food, including cereal, potatoes, canned soup, boxed macaroni and cheese, orange juice, rice, frozen chicken patties, frozen peaches and shelf-stable milk.
Supplying the community pantry means a huge jump in the weekly order Cornell has been placing with the Food Bank of the Southern Tier, which has been supplying the Cornell Food Pantry as well as other food pantries and soup kitchens in the area. Cornell is now bringing in 15,000 to 17,000 pounds of food per order, up from 2,000 to 3,000 pounds.
The food is sorted and packed up by members of Cornell Dining’s staff, who the university is continuing to employ despite many campus eateries closing over the course of the last few weeks.
“New York State has been hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic and New York City in particular,” explains Dustin Cutler, director of Cornell Dining. “While we are in Upstate New York, which hasn’t been hit as hard as New York City, we still knew we’d be getting cases in the surrounding areas. This is a small, tight-knit community and we knew that with unemployment rates increasing, the food banks will need some additional support.”
What he didn’t realize was that the community would also face a situation with their food bank volunteers, as many are older and therefore in the demographic most vulnerable to serious coronavirus complications. This included FBST, the main source of product for both Cornell’s own food pantry and other pantries in the area.
“They told us they were being overrun by individuals calling in [for help] and they were not getting sufficient [volunteer] support [to meet the increased need], so we partnered with the city of Ithaca and we found [GIAC] that is centrally located and essentially worked with them to [develop] this pop-up food pantry.”
The pantry launched on March 31 and over its first eight operating days, it provided more than 51,000 meals for the community, taking pressure off the overwhelmed traditional social service outlets.
“It’s great because not only does it help the community, but it keeps our employees coming in to work and providing them with really meaningful work, work that feels great while still practicing social distancing,” Cutler says.
The initiative involved shutting down one of the campus dining facilities, Robert Purcell Marketplace Eatery—no great loss given the greatly reduced numbers left on campus—and converting it into a kind of grocery store.
The food is delivered to Robert Purcell, where it is distributed by category to different “stations,” and employees then move among them to assemble the individual family boxes with a set assortment of products, with each containing enough food to feed a family of four for three days, a metric suggested by FBST from its experience serving the community. The whole thing is structured so that dry good are collected first, then frozen and finally refrigerated. The boxes are then delivered by refrigerated truck to GIAC for distribution. There, recipients simply pull up in their cars, pop open the truck where the box is then placed, and they drive off, limiting contact.
As for feeding the roughly 600 students still on the Cornell campus, as well as remaining staff, the North and West campuses each have one residential dining center remaining open, running on a three-week cycle to provide variety in each daypart. There is also one c-store open that serves basic retail food (burgers, wraps, etc.) and offers preordering. At the dining locations, Cornell Dining offers customized staff-assembled meals made to order, consistent with social distancing requirements. Everything is takeout as all seating is closed.