Adam Interviews Foodlink CEO Julia Tedesco

Adam Interviews

How Foodlink was able to react so quickly to the COVID-19 outbreak

ROCHESTER, NY (WROC-TV) — Foodlink responded to our public health crisis with promptness and precision this month, getting food to the areas and people that that needed it most.

That success derives from many of years of that planning and investment that began with Foodlink’s founder Tom Ferraro and carried on by his successor, Julia Tedesco.

Julia sat down with News 8 this week to talk about her group’s gargantuan task and how you can help.

Adam Chodak: How are you doing?

Julia Tedesco: Me or Foodlink? I’ll answer for both. We’re doing OK. I think the silver lining of having to show up every day is that you get to show up every day — and I know some people don’t have the opportunity and they have to work from home and I think there’s a certain level of powerlessness that people are feeling and navigating even as they sit at home, even though that’s the best type of service they can provide right now. So I’m trying to appreciate, and have my staff appreciate, the fact that even though we have to leave our homes every day and put ourselves at risk to some extent, it enables us to be productive, during this period, is a gift and a silver lining to this experience.

AC: What has the demand been like?

JT: There has been a different type of demand for emergency food. It’s been big, we’ve gotten a lot of emergency phone calls, our whole network of emergency food providers, but it’s different than what it’s looked like in the past. It’s not just individuals who rely on food stamps and emergency food, normally it’s folks that are panicked because there’s been a run on grocery stores and maybe their schedule didn’t allow them to get out, it’s folks who have lost their jobs either temporarily or permanently perhaps in the food industry or other places, and it’s individuals who receive meals through places that have been shut down like the school meals that are provided to kids throughout our city, or seniors who normally go through congregate feeding programs — so it’s new types of individuals. We’re getting phone calls from and the need is great.

AC: Do you have the supplies to meet those needs?

JT: Foodlink mobilized very quickly to make sure we were able to meet the need. There’s no amount of emergency food that we could put out through our 10-county network that would fully meet the need, that’s why we always depend on SNAP benefits for individuals who are experiencing food insecurity, but we have mobilized in a big way to meet this need.

We have emptied out our inventory, we have opened up our shelves to our partners in the community and we’ve ordered emergency supplies. Before this even hit we made a major order of critical food supplies so that we could provide emergency food supply boxes for folks, packs that will last a few weeks depending on size of families so the first 10,000 of those boxes are going out this week and next and then we’ll do a second round.

AC: I think that speaks to the structure of Foodlink as well, not just the supplies. Are you seeing any of Tom Ferraro’s work in what we’re seeing now?

JT: Tom Ferraro was my mentor, he was the founder of Foodlink and I think he would be immensely proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish to date, mostly because we’ve been able to turn around so quickly, I think that’s what he would be proud of. He wasn’t just responsive to the need of the community, but he prided himself and Foodlink on being nimble and being able to respond quickly and that’s what we did.

We’re seeing requests that we’ve never seen before and we’re turning around in a 24-hour basis and meeting those requests. Senior meals, our friends from Lifespan called us and said we’ve got seniors calling us off the hook and in need of home delivery, of meals and in 24 hours we had 1,000 senior bags of food out to our partners. We got a call from the county saying individuals who were in quarantine were also food insecure and needed food boxes and within 24 hours we had a nurse picking up those food boxes. I see Tom in that type of agility and ability to respond to requests really rapidly.

AC: What’s your biggest fear at this point?

JT: I don’t fear Foodlink’s ability to continue doing the work and meeting the need in the long run. I think there’s going to be ups and downs, but I think we are as prepared as we could possibly be to continue to respond to the community. So I’m trying not to be driven by fear, but when you ask that I think of my staff.

I want to protect them and make sure they feel as secure as possible coming to work every single day and they also are this physically, mentally and spiritually are in this for the long haul because we know that tensions are high, we know that they have families they need to take care of and that they value their work and the mission of serving this community, but there’s a lot that they need to balance. So my biggest personal fear is not being able to balance all of their personal needs, but I think so far we’re doing a good job with that and I hope we can continue to.

AC: Did you ever see anything like this when you took the job coming down the pike?

JT: No, I don’t think I could have ever foreseen this, but I will say that I started at the end of 2008 so the Foodbank at that time was responding to a recession and Tom Ferraro had begun to invest in more innovative programs and he had to suspend those temporarily as he reinvested in emergency food distribution and rebuilt that network and I’m seeing echoes of that right now.

We have this beautifully innovative strategic plan that we’ve been making progress on and we will continue to, but for this moment we have to suspend some of those seemingly exciting opportunities in the community so that we can respond. So, no, I never foresaw a situation in which we’d have to abide by social distancing and respond to a public health crisis, but we are a disaster response organization and we’re always prepared to suspend any non-essential activities in an effort to make sure people are fed which is our number one goal and the heart of our organization.

AC: Do you think after this is all over, perhaps people will have a greater appreciation of Foodlink and maybe help with the strategic plan that had been in place?

JT: That’s my hope overall because not only are we suspending those programs and activities, but we’re suspending our fundraisers, our annual event. We have to pause all of that so it is my sincere hope that people will be lifelong supporters of Foodlink after that.

I have been just floored by the response from the community that we’ve gotten so far, not just that they responded and donated, but they did it quickly, we didn’t have to sit and explain to them what this public health crisis would mean to children who receive two meals a day in school, or seniors who go every day to a congregate meal site — they made that connection and they started to donate instantly and we had incredible partners like the United Way who convened bigger funders across our community to make contributions to us so that we could immediately ramp up operations.

So, again, I’ve been so impressed with how quickly people responded and I think they’ll see, I’m confident they will see, that we’re good stewards of those contributions and we’re doing everything we can to feed this community and that they will join us for the long haul. After we feed individuals and get through this crisis we will still be here to feed people every single day.

AC: What else would you like to add that I might have missed?

JT: In addition to doing everything we can to protect our staff and volunteers, we’re doing everything we can to ensure the safety of our food supply as well, which is why we’ve moved a lot of our food supply off site to the convention center.

We’re so grateful for the folks at the convention center for opening up their facility and enabling us to pack emergency food boxes there and also grateful to the hundreds of volunteers who also signed up on a moment’s notice, have come out to the convention center for six days straight I think to pack boxes and while doing so keeping themselves distant from other volunteers there.

We know they’re putting themselves at risk just by leaving their doors, but they know that they’re called to do something greater and they’re called to help people and we could not be doing what we’re doing right now without them.

AC: I’m under the understanding that going to the convention center was not a pre-planned move in case of an emergency. That was very quick thinking and an extension of generosity on certain people’s parts …

JT: It certainly was. It had been recommended to us that we come up with a second site and we did that, but we didn’t do that without the help of our colleagues so the United Way of Greater Rochester, [Congressman] Joe Morelle have stepped up to help all the non-profits in town to make sure that we’re communicating and collaborating with government officials and it was with that help and collaboration that we were able to secure that spots in a 24-hour turnaround.

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