Chris Lavin says hunger during the coronavirus pandemic has been a ‘private crisis’. There were temporary job losses, permanent ones, and a reduction in hours for those who worked in the service industry. It led to a private crisis that he says played out over-and-over in neighborhoods around Geneva and the Finger Lakes region.
He’s the executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Geneva, and one of the biggest ways that organization has stepped up in 2020 has been by feeding families. Lavin says the loss of jobs and layoffs that occurred at the start of the pandemic had an ‘immediate effect’ on families across the city and region. It caused an almost-immediate increase in demand for food. Those who lost jobs, or relied on secondary income to keep refrigerators stocked were left with few options when the unemployment system and CARES Act left large gaps.
While long lines at food distribution events across the country have received a fair amount of media attention – the bigger challenge is dealing with the food insecurity that’s playing out in a private way. “You could see people lining up for food,” Lavin said, recalling a distribution event in Geneva. “But that’s a very public, frankly, a small piece of the puzzle. The real challenge is food insecurity down a quiet street, where people don’t have the money to go to Wegmans, and they have to feed the kids. That’s where the greatest need in Geneva.”
Food insecurity is complicated business.
“Drive-thru’s are idiosyncratic in that you have to have a car, you have to be pretty organized, you have to know the time-and-place, and you have to be able to get there,” Lavin explained. “The people who need the most help are not going to get food under those circumstances.” He said that some of the people who attended the most-recent drive-thru distribution event in Geneva were from other parts of Ontario County – like Phelps and Clifton Springs.
This is because the Boys and Girls Club serves more than just the city of Geneva. Before the pandemic, the Club served around 120 dinners per night at their Carter Road location and about 60-80 lunches. “When the virus hit we realized that feeding – even if we could just feed our kids – the need was going to be much greater,” Lavin remembered. “Our list grew exponentially. Within weeks, we went from 120 dinners a night to 400 delivered dinners all over Geneva, because feeding just kids in a family isn’t enough. If you just feed the kids and everyone else in the house is hungry – the kids won’t get everything they need. So we ended up expanding greatly.”
The community responded with monetary donations, which continues to be the area of greatest need for the Boys and Girls Club. “We’re burning through $25,000 a month just in food costs, not to mention any delivery and staff and everything else going into that,” Lavin added. “So it was a challenge that the community responded to. We’ve been piecing it together, but it’s an important role for the community.”
The Club also received a $50,000 donation from the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation in New York City over the summer, as they were running out of operational dollars.
The reality is that even if the Boys and Girls Club continues to run at full-strength — their profile is not going to lower in the coming months. Lavin says the Club is a lot more than just an after school program. “We’ve been growing slowly as a source of food and nutrition – not just the delivery of food – but teaching kids nutrition and teaching them food handling skills.” Some of them work at Wegmans and have gotten jobs in the food business.
“We’ve been in the food distribution business, but the pandemic showed us that the need was greater, and the need was there for us to get more robust,” Lavin added. Among the major changes coming in 2021 is a partnership with Foodlink in Rochester. “In January we’ll become a full-partner with Foodlink,” Lavin said. “They asked us after seeing our ability to move food properly and improve the community. We’re not getting out of the food business. We found a great way to help families, not just indigent, but working poor – if you can put better food into their house at a much lower cost through various community-based methods then it’s an overall economic boost for that family and the neighborhood around it.”
While some organizations are looking for ways to do more with less – the Boys and Girls Club is looking at ways to expand their impact on the community. “It’s a little bit daunting,” Lavin said of the coming transition to full-partnership with Foodlink. “But disruptive times, like the pandemic, they can knock you down or they can build you. Our approach was – being right in the middle of it – that we were one of the few institutions that not only couldn’t lay people off, but had to pay them more, extend our hours, and raise more money quickly to maintain what has been considered our core mission.”
The week between Christmas and New Years is the first real break that the Club’s hardworking staff has received. “We’ll have a small team putting out food over the next two weeks, but I’m trying to make this our first real break since March; and that’s important, because when we come back we only have two choices: Get stronger and grow or get weaker and shrink. And we’re going for the former, not that latter.”
The Boys and Girls Club is asking for contributions of any size to help with feeding local families. Click here to learn more and make a contribution.