Garden of eatin’: Kenny Suressi has found a renewed sense of purpose tending to St. Lucy’s organic garden. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
“A lot of the people we work with are single moms with
children,” says Cullen, herself a mother of five adult children. “Just
think about it. She’s a single mom, with two, three or four children.
She’s working, but it’s minimum wage. If she’s lucky, she has a car,
but it’s an old car, a gas eater. And what she’s paying for gas and
groceries—she’s just not gonna make it. So I get these calls saying,
‘I’m not gonna have food for my kids until I get paid.’”
Cullen has been running the food pantry
for 23 years. In all of that time, she has not only found ways to help
local families put food on the table, but she has also made a weekly
trip delivering food to St. Lucy’s parish on the West Side. “St.
Charles collects food every weekend,” she says. “The parishioners here
are extremely generous. They bring food, they donate money.”
Every week she loads at least one van
full of donated food and hauls it to St. Lucy’s, where it goes to feed
families in the poorest neighborhood in Syracuse. Her biggest donors?
“Senior citizens. They are the backbone of the support for the food
pantry. Maybe because they lived through the Depression, but they are
always there for us.”
Leslie Dubiel and a host of volunteers
run the St. Lucy’s food pantry. She worked at a Catholic church in
Baldwinsville until she began volunteering at St. Lucy’s last year. Now
she’s full time at the pantry.
Dubiel says the recession and high gas
prices don’t affect her clientele as much as they might others. “The
neighborhood people who come in here don’t drive,” says Dubiel, a
former special education teacher and mother of four. What she has
noticed is that families need more food in summer when school is
closed. “A lot of the neighborhood kids get lunch and breakfast at
school, and when school is out, they need to replace those meals with
Interestingly, St. Lucy’s has not
suffered from a shortage of donations or a run on the pantry since food
and gas prices started climbing earlier this year. “Just when you think
you’ve got it down,” says Dubiel, “it all changes. Usually when I say
out loud that we’re low on something—it walks in the door.” On one
recent morning the pantry needed what Dubiel calls miscellaneous items,
when a man she knows only as “Santa” came by with baked goods, ketchup
and other items.
And the pantry carries more than food.
“There are a lot of things you can’t buy on food stamps,” says Dubiel,
“like toiletries, shampoo, laundry detergent or feminine products. So
we have a shelf of items like that, so people can pick it up when they
come for their food.”
Food for Thought
Katharine Loomis is the director of
development for the Food Bank of Central New York, which provides food
for nearly 600 pantries, shelters and emergency programs in 11
counties. After opening in 1984, the Food Bank today has grown to a
staff of 41, including a full-time buyer. The annual budget topped $1
million last year for the first time, and this year already the
organization has raised $1.27 million.
Loomis says the Food Bank and pantries
have to work hard to keep up with the needs of the working poor. To
that end, they try to make every dollar count. “We always prefer funds
over food donated. Give us a $10 donation and we can turn it into $70
or $80 worth of food,” she says. “We have huge buying power.”
Cullen echoes that sentiment. She is an
expert at helping a dollar go a long way. “I shop the sales. The first
thing I do every Sunday is read the paper, and I look for the sales.
When I make my grocery list, right on the back I’ve got my list for the
pantry. I find the deals on the peanut butter, pasta, jelly, cereal and
the tuna fish. Cereal is a great thing, because they can eat it for a
snack. Even if they don’t have milk, they can eat it dry.”
Last year the Food Bank received a
one-time grant from New York state in the amount of $552,000. The funds
came through the Executive Branch’s Hunger Prevention Nutrition
Assistance Program. With that money they were able to supply more food
to pantries, and linked that assistance with training to help develop
what they call model programs.
St. Lucy’s is one of those model
programs. The food pantry experience there is very personal. Clients
are guided through the shelves by a volunteer and can fill their
shopping cart from all the items on the shelf. “It’s really important
that people can choose what they would like,” says Dubiel. “We work to
promote healthy eating through education. Some people are receptive to
it, some are not.”
Although Dubiel likes the financial
contributions, she also appreciates the many people who drop in with
food. “We have people who support us on a financial basis, but I do
love it when people walk through the door.”
One of the people who walks in the door
almost every day is Tony Lombardo, a longtime West Side activist and
member of St. Lucy’s Kateri Tekawitha Committee. On this day, like most
days, he cruises in with breads, cookies and cakes he donates after
purchasing them from the Wegmans at Western Lights. Other supporters
pick up and deliver day-old bread from P&C.
With the expected growth in demand for
food giveaways, you might wonder how Dubiel knows who is truly in need.
“To get in here, all you need to tell me is that you need food. You
need to tell me how many are in your household, and show me a piece of
mail that tells me where you live. With that I give you food for three
meals a day for five days, once a month.”
One effect of rising food prices is that
grocery store bakeries appear to be baking less bread as demand drops
off. “With computerized inventory,” says Loomis, “there aren’t a lot of
baked goods left over. The stores also have more secondary markets,
discount stores where they can sell their excess product, or dented
cans, label misprints, things like that. In the past those items were
donated; now they go to the secondary market.”
All agree that the impact of rising food
and gas prices on the poor is not temporary. “The days of 99-cent
peanut butter are gone,” Cullen says wistfully. “I’m amazed at the
number of people who are going to bed hungry.”
Statistics from the Onondaga County
Social Service Department bear out her impression. Since the beginning
of the year, the number of food stamp cases has risen 6.7 percent, from
17,331 to 18,490 (the number in 2002 was barely 10,000).
Among the workers feeding the poor at
St. Lucy’s is Kenny Suressi. Kenny knows what it’s like to be in need.
He came back to St. Lucy’s two years ago when he got out of prison
after 14 years. He helps with the organic garden across the street that
provides fresh vegetables all summer long. He cooks lunch on
Wednesdays, when the pantry and the parish put on a “Bread of Life”
meal for hundreds of local people. “I love to cook,” says Suressi.
Feeding the poor has given his life new
purpose. “My mom taught me to cook. You come back in the winter,” he
promises, “and you’ll see the stews and soups that I make.” Dubiel
calls Kenny “a real inspiration for a lot of people in the
She adds that working at St. Lucy’s has
opened her eyes to the world around her. “People would be surprised at
how many poor people work. These are people just trying to do their
best. Is the economy hurting us? Is it worse? I can’t say. Our people
are always poor.”
In some ways, the gas crunch might be helping us better understand what it’s like when ends just won’t meet.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
To reach St. Lucy’s Food Pantry, call 475-7273, or stop by the pantry located in the old school gymnasium across from the church at 432 Gifford St.To support St. Charles, call Marie Cullen at 468-4122.
Donations to the Food Bank of Central New York can be sent to 6970 Schuyler Road, East Syracuse 13057. Loomis can be reached at 437-1899.