The quest to end hunger in Syracuse is far from over. Tom Slater, executive director of the Food Bank of Central New York, might know this better than anyone.
Slater saw more than 12 million pounds of food leave his warehouse on Interstate Island Road in the past year. He recognizes that the 11 counties the food bank serves continue to have people in need of emergency food provision.
But for Slater, who comes from a background in social services and in seminary, the work he does is much more than delivering jars of spaghetti sauce to the 268 emergency shelters, food pantries and soup kitchens in partnership with the food bank.
“I don’t believe it’s an accident that I’m here,” Slater said. “I feel blessed to do this work, and I feel that God’s hand has been on us.”
Perhaps Slater’s passion for the job is what grew a struggling organization into a thriving one under his leadership for 18 years. Slater was named Gael of the Year for the Syracuse St. Patrick’s Parade on March 9, a recognition of the work that he has done to benefit the greater Syracuse area.
Slater attributes much of the food bank’s success to having a focused staff behind him.
“I’m blessed to have very intelligent, articulate, self-motivated people who care about our mission,” he said.
Slater oversees 50 employees at the food bank. He considers it his job to keep them on track for their mission to help families. Slater hopes the food pantries associated with the food bank can move people from reliance on the emergency food network to long-term assistance.
“We connect them to the government benefits, and we move them toward self-sufficiency,” he said.
Slater knows that a bulk of the personal connections with families in need happens through the vast number of volunteers who work in the food pantries and soup kitchens in the region.
Providing food is one step, but pointing people toward government programs such as Women, Infants and Children and Home Energy Assistance Program will lead to long-term solutions.
Slater hopes to encourage collaboration to share the workload for pantries and organizations that struggle to bear the weight of need in their com munities.
He said the program in Marcellus is a model. There, several church efforts joined in a single ecumenical food pantry.
“It’s a model of collaboration, and they effectively reach everyone in that school district,” Slater said.
Judy Gelston, who organizes the efforts of the Skaneateles Ecumenical Food Pantry, said that collaboration has helped make the movement much stronger in the past 10 years.
“There’s a strength and a unity together,” she said.
The pantry has 35 registered families in need and 38 dedicated volunteers that Gelston calls on to share the responsibility. The separate churches pool their resources to provide a cohesive service to the Skaneateles area, and they will work together to compile food baskets for Easter.
“The Presbyterians have peas, carrots and pineapple,” Gelston said. “Another has cake and frosting; another has boxed potatoes.”
Together, the churches will provide ingredients for full meals, including a ham proportional to the size of each family.
Both Gelston and Slater are pleased that the food provided is becoming more need-specific. Many food pantries allow families to select the foods they need based on a points system. The program has been popular in Skaneateles for some time, but Slater hopes that other food pantries will follow. The products include the five major food groups, a reflection of the healthy choices the food bank hopes to offer.
“We’re recognized across the country for our focus on nutrition,” Slater said. “We were the first food bank to stand up and say we’re not going to accept and distribute soda and candy.”
Slater believes goods like those can be bought everywhere; access to fresh produce and other nutritious goods is not as easy. His goal in the choice pantries with healthier options is to foster better health outcomes for the caregivers and their children.
The progress in the food bank comes after years of working with tight budgets and casting a vision plan that put Slater and his team where they are today. He took over during a change of leadership while he was developing a business plan for the Department of Social Services. A committee from the board of directors asked him to serve as the executive director on an interim basis. That shifted into an indefinite period as Slater put the new business plan into practice.
“I felt if I had the nerve to write a business plan I should have the courage to carry it out,” he said.
Slater was nervous about the change, but also gained skills through his master’s degree coursework in information resources management at Syracuse University. The aspects of supply-chain work helped him to shift the direction of the food bank, which at the time faced fiscal concerns. Today, the not-for-profit organization has an $8 million budget and reaches people across 26,000 square miles.
Slater points to the community’s generosity as a major factor in the longevity of the program. He said so much of the food bank’s work depends upon volunteers in the community, and individual and group donors who add to the supply. He said that every level of government is involved, along with private companies and individual donors, to ensure that the region has an adequate supply of basic goods.
“Central New York should be very proud of its food bank because it’s a community effort,” he said. “It’s a community success.”