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Comlinks food distribution warehouse in Malone
Comlinks food distribution warehouse in Malone

Food gleaning program returns to its roots

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It's been a tough year for the community action agency Comlinks in Malone. It made headlines in February when the former Comlinks director was indicted for theft. And now, its program to distribute to food pantries and soup kitchens is facing steep budget cuts from the state.

This week, Comlinks announced it will need to cut services, and will no longer be making food deliveries west of Massena.

Julie Grant recently visited the Comlinks food distribution warehouse in Malone, and found that the organization is trying to get back to its roots.

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The gleaning program processes local produce for winter

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Reported by

Julie Grant
Reporter and Producer

The Comlinks warehouse manager is unloading about 10,000 pounds of food from the Regional Food Bank in Albany. Today they’re opening boxes filled with the usual pantry fare: canned goods, pasta, peanut butter. 

Brian Cassini stands nearby, looking over the new inventory. He’s the director of Comlinks. 

Cassini appreciates the delivery but he says Comlinks started a food gleaning program 21 years ago to get fresh fruits and vegetables to people who needed it. "It originated really as a request to area growers to set aside a couple of rows of their harvest to help supply food pantries and help feed the hungry," Cassini said.

Cassini says over time, the program became largely dependent on corporate donations. With the economic downturn, Comlinks’ piece of that pie shrank.

"We began a couple of years ago with a shift back to origins of the gleaning program, which is trying to use the local resources in Franklin County as a largely still agrarian community, to increase production of locally grown fruits and vegetables," he said.

Now Comlinks has again put out a request to area growers to plant a row for the food pantries.  Cassini says New York farmers last year gave lots of potatoes and apples. Comlinks also planted its own nine acre garden.  And the program works with 20 correctional facilities throughout the state. Cassini says  that in the past couple of years, prisoners grew nearly 200,000 pounds of produce for the food pantries Comlinks serves in the North Country.   

There’s more produce than the pantries need daily, so Comlinks started preserving the harvest. "What we’re about to enter here is our harvest kitchen, and this is our newest initiative," Cassini said.

Cassini opens a large stainless steel refrigerator, to show off small vacuum sealed bags. Some are filled with strawberries, others with a mix of broccoli and cauliflower. He says they were processed and frozen in-house in June. 

This year Comlinks wants to nearly triple its processing to 50,000 pounds. Cassini says they’ve hired a processing manager, and are buying some heavy duty equipment: "In addition to the equipment you see here, we’re taking delivery later this month of a large steam kettle, a large blast freezer, and a commercial grade vacuum packing machine."

Comlinks has needed extra money to pay for the commercial kitchen, the processing manager, and even the garden help.  They requested a budget of nearly twice what they got last year from the state health department.

But even before the new equipment arrived, the program got  bad news. Instead of twice last year’s budget, the state was giving Comlink’s less than half.  That’s $150,000 dollars. Cassini says payroll costs alone are more than that. 

So the food delivery program is going to be cut.

"We presently deliver in seven North Country counties, as far away as Glens Falls," Cassini said. "And with the cost of fuel and trucking, that’s going to become prohibitive."

Cassini says Comlinks hopes for more money from the state. At this point though he says Comlinks may lay off folks at the warehouse this winter, so they can focus all their resources on producing and preserving vegetables in the spring, summer, and early fall.

 

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