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Community volunteers pack donated food into boxes and then load the boxes into vehicles for distribution to local food banks at the Stephen T. Garner Day of Caring at Stewart Park Sep. 12.

United Way’s Day of Caring puts spotlight on food insecurity

Nearly 100 boxes lined rows of tables in a Stewart Park pavilion at this year’s Day of Caring food drive Sept. 12, totaling several thousand pounds of donations to local food pantries.

It was an impressive haul, but Cal Walker, chair of the United Way of Tompkins County’s annual giving campaign, urged event participants to focus on just one of the boxes.

Goods collected for the Day of Caring.

Its contents included a package of elbow pasta, a jar of creamy peanut butter and cans of tuna, corn and green beans, and it held a significance far greater than the assortment of pantry items.

“This box right here can be the difference in whether a family in this community eats tonight or not,” said Walker. “These are not just tables full of boxes. Behind these boxes are waiting families, little children, hungry stomachs that need to be filled.”

The 23rd Stephen E. Garner Day of Caring, named for the late Tompkins Trust Co. CEO and United Way board chair, served a dual purpose: raising awareness about hunger and food insecurity; and formally kicking off the United Way’s fundraising campaign. This year’s theme is “Be the solution.”

Walker, who retired recently as the outreach liaison for Cornell’s Office of Community Relations, announced an ambitious fundraising goal: $1.9 million. The funds will support health, education and financial stability services provided by dozens of local nonprofits. Donors can also direct gifts to any nonprofit they choose worldwide.

The leader of one of them, Foodnet Meals on Wheels, which last year served more than 170,000 meals to older adults, said the campaign is critical to its mission.

“I feel motivated knowing that together we can move the needle in the right direction for so many in our community,” said Jessica Gosa, Foodnet’s executive director. “We are forever thankful to have United Way behind our work.”

Gosa co-chaired the campaign’s Pacesetters, a group of more than 20 businesses and organizations that have already helped raise nearly $210,000 toward the goal.

Pacesetter co-chair Alex Adelewitz, service area manager at Wegmans, said he’d been moved to give back to the community after seeing his parents battle cancer diagnoses, with help from the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes. “Everybody has a ‘why,’” he said.

Cornell employees and retirees play a major role in the campaigns, contributing as much as 40% of the total, said James Brown, CEO of United Way of Tompkins County.

Cornell will host its campaign kickoff celebration Sept. 25 at 3 p.m. in the Willard Straight Hall Memorial Room. Pat Wynn, assistant vice president for student and campus life, and Rick Burgess, vice president for facilities and campus services, are the campaign co-chairs.

On any given day, Brown said, assessments have determined that 20%-25% of county residents suffer from hunger or food insecurity – being unsure where their next meal will come from.

“This gives us the opportunity to take additional steps, to serve more people, and to make more people aware of the fact that there are needs and that they have an opportunity to be part of a larger solution,” he said.

Day of Caring volunteers sorted and packed the boxes of nonperishable food and other donated goods, including school supplies, pet food and health care items like soap and toothpaste. The boxes were then picked up by 15 area food pantries comprising the Tompkins County Food Distribution Network, all members of the Food Bank of the Southern Tier.

Joan Barber, director of the Danby Food Pantry and volunteer coordinator for the Ithaca Kitchen Cupboard, said the need remains acute: Many local pantries give out up to 8,000 pounds of food every month. “The clients depend on the extra food,” she said.

In addition to participating in United Way campaigns at their workplaces, community members can contribute in several ways, including donating online at, texting “local” to 313131 or calling (607) 500-GIVE.

Food and other items can be dropped off at the United Way of Tompkins County office at 313 N. Aurora St. in downtown Ithaca.

Walker also feels a close personal connection to United Way-supported services: He is a cancer survivor and has been a foster parent to 50 children his family has cared for over the past two decades.

“Ours is a caring community,” he said. “We can all play an important part. We can all celebrate the big wins. We can all look up and say, ‘You know what? Together we did this.’”

Media Contact

Abby Butler