Nourishing New York
Supplying those in need with dignified ingredients Nourish New York is a groundreaking program
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When the pandemic hit in March, the small restaurants supplied by Lively Run Goat Dairy in Interlaken, New York, closed, and the family-run operation lost the lifeblood of their existence overnight. Brothers Dave and Pete Messmer, who run the small dairy, looked around and saw others in their community struggling, too; supermarket shelves were empty because of panic buying and distribution disruptions, people were going hungry, and the larger dairies around them were dumping millions of gallons of milk. It felt like everything was collapsing.
When the brothers started talking to the nearby dairymen, they learned the producers wanted to feed people, but they couldn’t deliver milk to supermarkets and pantries. Most specialized in large-scale production and were making “the kind of 20-pound tubs of sour cream that ended up at Chipotle,” Pete Messmer said. “They couldn’t switch over to retail.” With cows needing to be milked daily and storage at capacity, they had no choice but to dump the milk, much to the detriment of their local groundwater.
Then, Pete had an “a-ha” moment: Lively Run was perfectly suited to process the excess milk. That night, he and Dave decided to buy it and make cheese to donate to food banks. “Bigger businesses have a much harder time [pivoting] because they need so much more infrastructure in order to be efficient,” Pete said. “A business like ours can be nimble and switch over quickly.”
Although it might not have seemed like much at the time that a-ha moment was seminal. It would up transforming decades of food policy that kept farmers from accessing much needed income at a time when it couldn't be harder to stay in business and kept poor communities from accessing healthy fresh food, something they have been pleading for.
Historically, pandemics have resulted in innovations that have pushed society forward, and redesigning local food distribution systems might just be one of COVID’s silver linings. And nowhere is connecting farmers to community more important than in food-insecure communities that were in need even before the pandemic hit.
Nourish products have also helped avert another crisis, one that was created by the new administration in City Hall. From the beginning, Nourish was supplemented by an emergency city-run program called the Pandemic Food Reserve Emergency Distribution Program (P-FRED), which supplied pantries with fresh and shelf-stable food. P-FRED was supposed to continue until the end of June, but on February 28, the food stopped coming without notification, sending pantries throughout the city scrambling.
The city’s Human Resources Administration, which oversees P-FRED, said that the program has not been terminated but is “winding down;” for the pantries that relied on it, it’s been all but terminated. At the height of the pandemic, Masbia’s three locations received 36 truckloads of P-FRED goods each week, Rapaport said; now there are none.
“Imagine just waiting for trucks to arrive and they’re not arriving. There wasn’t a notification. It was shocking, catastrophic,” Rapaport said. In order to feed the 1,500 people in line on February 28, Rapaport turned to the emergency reserves of shelf-stable foods that he stored for blizzards and hurricanes.
Essential in a time of Inflation
The program faced immediate pressure as the Omicron variant and rising inflation complicated the picture. Within weeks, New York became the epicenter of the pandemic for a second time, leading to more devastating job losses. At the same time, inflation was on the rise, reaching 7.5 percent in January. New Yorkers saw increased price tags at the grocery store as meat and dairy products were hit particularly hard, with prices increasing 16 percent and 4 percent, respectively.
“Way more people are affected by the economic recession that resulted from [the pandemic], which really takes a toll on how they can feed themselves,” said Alexander Rapaport, CEO and executive director of the kosher Masbia Soup Kitchen Network, which operates three pantries across New York City.
Amidst all these challenges, Nourish has again stepped in to support New York farmers and enable food pantries to continue feeding those who can least afford high-quality foods that are highly impacted by inflation and price gouging. Since being signed into law, Nourish’s budget has doubled to $50 million, and farmers can now sell some or all of their products to pantries if they choose, Hinchey said.