Oneida County Food Pantries Shine a Spotlight on Food Insecurity for National Hunger Action Month

by Ella

In observance of National Hunger Action Month, local food pantries in Oneida County are actively addressing the critical issue of food insecurity in their communities.

The Oneida County Food Coalition, an alliance comprising food pantries and emergency meal providers, has initiated the “Oneida County Feeds: 30 Days, 30 Stories” campaign this September. As part of this effort, the coalition showcases a different individual or organization each day on their Facebook page, highlighting those who are dedicated to addressing the pressing issue of food insecurity and offering a human face to this challenge.


Armand Mastraccio, co-chairman of the Oneida County Food Coalition and manager of the September initiative, expressed the significance of this campaign, stating, “We just felt that this is a time when community programs can really increase and promote awareness about the issues of food insecurity and hunger in their communities.”


Food insecurity, as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture, pertains to “The limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.”


According to data from Feeding America’s “Map the Meal Gap,” as of 2021, 10.3% of Oneida County residents were classified as food insecure, highlighting the pressing nature of this challenge. Mastraccio referred to food insecurity in Oneida County as a hidden crisis, motivating the coalition to bring this issue to the forefront to ensure people understand the scope of the problem.


Several factors contribute to food insecurity, including soaring inflation and the conclusion of enhanced federal aid implemented during the Covid-19 pandemic. A report from the New York State Comptroller’s office in March underlined, “More recently, rising food costs have placed additional pressure on household budgets just as pandemic-era relief programs have lapsed.”

The discontinuation of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s (SNAP) pandemic emergency allotments (EAs) in March resulted in reduced food assistance, leaving many households struggling to afford groceries.

Rev. Ursula Meier, Chief Operations Officer of Johnson Park Center, a non-profit organization offering housing support, youth programs, and a food pantry, expressed concern about the rising number of households seeking assistance. The pantry has been serving 300-400 households every Monday in recent months.

Meier, who also serves on the board of the Oneida County Food Coalition, hopes that the “Oneida County Feeds” initiative will foster compassion and understanding in the community. She emphasized the need to dispel judgments about those seeking assistance, saying, “There’s still a group who is judging the people who need the extra help… And I think there’s a lack of understanding that in America, you can work 40 hours and you’re still poor. And so how can you judge that person?”

Seniors are one group particularly vulnerable to food insecurity. Meier and Mastraccio pointed out that some senior citizens struggle to make ends meet with their Social Security checks. The Food Bank of Central New York reported that 63% of client households with senior citizens are forced to choose between buying food and purchasing medicine.

The reluctance of some seniors to seek help due to pride compounds the issue. Meier said, “It just breaks my heart that seniors are struggling… And I still know too many seniors who are sitting home who will suffer because they feel intimidated to go to a food pantry. They feel bad about it.”

To ensure accessibility, the Johnson Park Center food pantry offers two monthly drive-thru food pickups to assist seniors and others with mobility challenges. Additionally, the pantry caters to a substantial immigrant population and provides Spanish-speaking staff members. Proteins such as chicken and fish are also available to accommodate Muslim clients who do not consume pork.

Veterans are another demographic facing food insecurity. The Food Bank of Central New York reported that 16% of the households it serves include active duty or veterans of the military.

Rich Synek, founder and executive director of Feed Our Vets, a network of food pantries supporting veterans, shared his personal experience. Synek, a combat veteran himself, recalled a regular customer named Mr. B who could only afford one stamp per week. After inquiring about Mr. B’s situation, Synek discovered that Mr. B was struggling to meet basic needs with his and his wife’s Social Security checks. This encounter led to the creation of Feed Our Vets in 2009, which now operates in multiple locations across the country.

Joe Ancona, a veteran and the director of the Utica Feed Our Vets pantry, stressed the importance of ensuring that nobody goes hungry, saying, “That’s really the bottom line. Everybody’s got to eat. And being a veteran also, there’s a bond between veterans.”

Mastraccio aims to expand the Oneida County Food Coalition by incorporating more food pantries to increase their reach. In line with this goal, the coalition has submitted a grant proposal for a food waste recovery program.

Johnson Park Center’s food pantry is set to relocate to a larger facility next spring, offering opportunities for expansion. Meier envisions offering cooking classes and nutritional education to empower individuals.

Above all, the coalition aims to use its September initiative to raise awareness about the persistent issue of food insecurity and inspire community members to take action, whether through donations or contributions of groceries. Mastraccio noted, “Our community’s a great community, a very generous one, and I think if they realized the magnitude of the problem, they would want to do things that have an impact for change.”



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