Friendship Donations Network

Friendship Donations Network (picture provided)

A Note from GreenStar: Friendship Donations Network is one of 10 local nonprofit organizations voted among GreenStar’s membership to be a 2022 Partner for Change. Read more about our Partners for Change program here.

This article is published with the permission of Tompkins Weekly.

Food for Thought column by Cathy Shipos – January 19, 2022

Statistics show that between 30 and 40% of all food produced in the United States is wasted (tinyurl.com/y5veft99). At the same time, according to the USDA, more than 38 million people in the country are food insecure (tinyurl.com/y4rkthlf), including 11.6% of Tompkins County residents (tinyurl.com/yhv3a9qc). How can both of these things be true? Isn’t there a way to get the excess food to the people who need it before it is wasted?

That is the mission of the Friendship Donations Network (FDN), a local organization that “rescues fresh, nutritious food that would otherwise be thrown away and redistributes it to neighbors in need,” according to its website. In fact, FDN provides food donations to area hunger relief programs serving more than 2,000 people a week, diverting over 1,000 pounds of good food from the local landfill every day.

To accomplish their food rescue mission, FDN works with community partners as a sort of matchmaker. Meaghan Sheehan Rosen, FDN’s coordinator and only paid staff member, describes the agency’s role this way.

“We facilitate donations from local grocery stores, farms, farmers markets, colleges and many other types of food-related businesses,” she said. “Then, we coordinate the distribution of that rescued food throughout the community to programs that can use it and get it to people.”

FDN shares food with a wide range of community organizations, from large and well-established programs like Loaves & Fishes and the regional food pantry network to smaller groups working with more focused populations. Examples of the latter include various after-school programs throughout the county, Tompkins County Mental Health Department programs and the Advocacy Center.

Then, there are the grassroots distributions, more in the style of mutual aid. A volunteer may know someone who is struggling and would really benefit from having access to free fresh food. Some volunteers make deliveries to mobile home parks in rural areas or housing communities in Ithaca.

“That type of distribution only happens because people have connections with each other,” Sheehan Rosen said. “We try to support the efforts of anyone who comes to us with an opportunity to share food with people. Part of FDN’s strength, in my view, is having so many different people and programs that are able to reach different parts of our community.”

Since much of FDN’s work is done behind the scenes, recipients of their rescued food may be unaware of the organization’s existence. But testimonials on FDN’s website show that their food distribution partners find FDN’s contributions crucial.

Melissa Madden of the PressBay Food Transfer Hub said, “Without FDN, we would 100% be unable to operate our lean, small downtown pantry each week. We rely on FDN for 85% of our donated food.”

Melissa Perry from the Child Development Council added, “FDN provides an aspect of stability for families who experience food insecurity. I have literally seen families breathe a sigh of relief when being given a box of food.”

Over the last few years, Sheehan Rosen has seen an increased focus on the food system, along with a concerted effort to improve communication and collaboration with local partners. This includes the work of the Tompkins County Food Policy Council and the development of the Tompkins Food Future plan.

“In the past, FDN was the only one in the room talking about food rescue,” Sheehan Rosen said. “Now, it is growing into a much broader community conversation. It’s exciting to see an action plan developing and having the reduction of food waste be a significant part of it.”

Effective on Jan. 1, 2022, the New York State Food Donation and Food Scraps Recycling law (nysenate.gov/legislation/laws/ENV/A27T22) now requires businesses and institutions that generate an annual average of two tons of wasted food per week to donate excess edible food. While not expecting to see any major changes in food donations, Sheehan Rosen is encouraged by this shift in policy.

“We’re already connected with most of the designated food scrap generators in Tompkins County,” Sheehan Rosen said. “I am hopeful, however, that the new law will have a positive impact on other businesses as they make their decisions as to what they will or won’t donate.”

Even though existing state and federal laws protect food donors from liability, Sheehan Rosen has encountered hesitancy and misinformation in the past. She has been part of the group in New York state working with the Department of Environmental Conservation to educate potential donors, providing resources and connections to food rescue organizations.

“Often, it comes down to one person being motivated or inspired to recognize that food is being wasted and questioning whether something can be done,” Sheehan Rosen said. “The best solution is often the simplest one.”

For an organization with excess food on its hands, the solution may be as simple as picking up the phone and letting FDN take it from there. Volunteers in FDN’s gleaning program, for example, work with area farmers to collect food that would otherwise be left unharvested in the field. In other cases, FDN volunteers pick up donations of unsold produce at the end of farmer’s markets and CSA distributions.

“It’s wild to see new volunteers picking up this really gorgeous food from Wegmans or Greenstar or the Farmers Market,” Sheehan Rosen said. “So much of the world feels abstract or out of our immediate control. This is something we can see and feel on a daily basis, the tangible impact of capturing that food.”

Founded in 1988 by Ithaca resident Sara Pines, FDN has been rescuing food in the community for almost 35 years. Pines, who ran the organization single-handedly for its first two decades, retired in 2010. Before stepping down, however, she made sure that the work would continue by assembling a board of directors. Under their leadership, FDN officially incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and a part-time coordinator was hired to manage daily operations.

Friendship Donations Network Volunteers

Friendship Donations Network Volunteers (picture provided)

“We are almost entirely volunteer-run,” Sheehan Rosen said. “Volunteers handle all of the daily pick-ups and deliveries. They answer the phones seven days a week, 365 days a year. We’ve created and are nurturing this decentralized network that doesn’t rely on any one individual, allowing us to be flexible, reliable and consistent.”

One of those volunteers is Jen Curley, who had this to say in a recent FDN newsletter.

“This may sound selfish,” Curley said. “But I volunteer for FDN because of the sheer joy and fulfillment it brings me. Food is one of the most basic human needs, and it is crazy to me, in a county with such abundance, that there are still people who don’t have enough to eat.”

Sheehan Rosen attributes FDN’s success to the donors, distributors and volunteers who make it possible.

“The fact that we’ve been going strong for 34 years is a real testament to the community,” Sheehan Rosen said. “All the people who are involved, the farmers and food businesses that donate, all the people on the food sharing side — it’s just incredible how supporting and sustaining the community has been. I’m grateful to be a part of it.”

If you’d like to get involved, visit the Friendship Donations Network website at friendshipdonations.org.

Food for Thought is published in the third edition each month in Tompkins Weekly. Send story ideas to editorial@vizellamedia.com.