Meet Natasha Thompson of Food Bank of the Southern Tier

The following interview is part of the Philanthropy Roundtable’s “Free to Give” series highlighting the impact that philanthropy can have when Americans have the right to give freely to the causes and communities they care about most. Learn more here.

The Food Bank of the Southern Tier is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1982 that distributes food and other grocery items to people in need through a network of about 165 community-based organizations in the Southern Tier region of New York State. We serve six counties in the Southern Tier, or about 4,000 square miles of territory comprised of mostly rural communities.”

“We are part of the Feeding America network of food banks, affiliated with Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Rochester and one of 10 Feeding America food banks here in New York State. Around 85% of the organizations we work with are faith-based – your typical food pantry in a church basement and run by volunteers.”

“We also partner with 41 school districts across the region to provide kids with food through our BackPack program. That has been a tremendous partnership for us, especially during the pandemic, as schools have really stepped up to serve families in need.”

“The first two weeks in March, after the first stay-at-home orders hit, we saw a 300% increase in demand compared to the same time last year. Our food pantries and meal programs were being inundated with requests as people were furloughed or laid off from their jobs. They were turning to us for help, especially until they could receive crucial unemployment benefits.”

“We have had to completely change the way we operate. We established food hubs in five of the six counties we serve and had to shift to smaller groups of volunteers, packing emergency food boxes. Throughout March and April, we were distributing nearly 100,000 pounds of food each day.”

“One of the main challenges we face is that serving a more rural region can be difficult, especially when responding to disasters like the pandemic. We’ve had to rethink the way we distributed food to people because our traditional disaster response methods just weren’t a possibility this time because of social distancing requirements.”

“Going into 2020, our initial fundraising goal was $3 million. That would be the most we’d ever raised. Halfway through March, all those plans were tossed out the window. Our monthly disaster relief expenses shot up to triple what they typically were.”

“Luckily, we had several foundations reach out to us almost immediately. They wanted to support our work and put money where it was needed most. We were very fortunate in terms of generosity from the community. Individual donors, many of them new, also made significant contributions.”

“The quick response from donor-advised funds allowed us to be very nimble in our relief efforts. We received 39 donor-advised fund gifts through a single community foundation last year, during the pandemic. At one point, we were receiving two or three notifications every week of donor-advised fund gifts.”

“It was incredible to witness such generosity and we were able to put those gifts to use right away. That immediate response really demonstrated to us that donors understood what we were doing and recognized that food was a critical need.”

“This region has a growing senior population. And, of course, that was the demographic with the highest risk from contracting COVID-19. Many were told to not leave the house, so a mobile food pantry or a regular pantry was often off the table for them. Transportation was already a problem in the region, but COVID-19 really magnified that.”
“We had to partner with multiple organizations in each community that could deliver food to people who could not leave their homes. We provided the food boxes and our partners delivered the food to those in need. That was a critical innovation in how we addressed the need in our communities.”

“Many communities in our region are classified as food deserts. The traditional definition of a food desert in a rural community is any place that people have to travel more than 10 miles to get to a grocery store.”

“We also have many communities where the only place that people can get food is something like a gas station convenience store, so the food tends to be more expensive and you can’t really get fresh produce. Reaching those communities during COVID-19 has been a real challenge that we’ve had to address.”

“About 50% of school-aged children – that’s about 41,000 kids across the region – are eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals in school. So, if they’re relying on free or reduced-price meals at school for breakfast and/or lunch, now that they’re home, there’s a question of how are they are going to have access to those meals? For a lot of families who are living right on the edge, providing those extra meals can put a huge dent in their financial situation.”

“The schools here really went above and beyond to figure out how to get meals to kids. Many of them were loading meals into school buses and delivering food out. On our end, we partnered with many school districts to provide them with emergency food boxes to help address the critical need.”

“We love it when we have the support and confidence of our donors. That allows us to just focus and do the work. We will continue to do everything we can to reach the most vulnerable communities and best serve families, especially those with young children, while learning from the successes of the past year.”

– Natasha Thompson, president & CEO, Food Bank of the Southern Tier, Elmira, NY

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