The Food Bank of the Southern Tier produces 600 food boxes every week for distribution to families in need.

Professor helps organize county food task force

A Cornell faculty member is part of a core team that has organized the Tompkins County COVID-19 Food Task Force, a nerve center working to ensure that those in need have access to food and that food producers stay in operation during the crisis.

Rachel Bezner Kerr, professor of global development in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, collaborated with three community leaders over the past few weeks to get this countywide task force up and running. 

Cornell impacting New York State

The task force is divided into three teams, focused on: coordinating emergency distribution of food; steady production of food; and health and communication. Each team holds its own weekly call, with more than 60 organizations participating and another 30 organizations that may not attend weekly calls but are part of the county food system.

The task force will operate as a three-month pilot program, and it could continue longer based on emergency needs of the county.

“We want everyone in this community eating safely and nutritiously,” Bezner Kerr said, “and we don’t want this health crisis leading to a food crisis, so we want to make sure that food distribution continues, and we don’t lose any farms.” 

The task force operates virtually and in a space donated by GreenStar Co-op and serves, Bezner Kerr said, as a coordinating backbone for existing local food-related organizations by sharing information and resources.

“We’re not inventing a new institution,” said Bezner Kerr, whose expertise is in sustainable agriculture, food security, health, nutrition and social inequalities. Much of her work has been in southern Africa.

Other core task force organizers include: Rafael Aponte, farmer and owner of Rocky Acres Community Farm in Freeville, New York; Kirby Edmonds, MPS ’99, senior fellow and program coordinator of the Dorothy Cotton Institute and a managing partner at TFC (Training for Change) Associates in Ithaca; and Tompkins County Legislator Anna Kelles (D-2nd Ward). 

The task force, with funds from Engaged Cornell and Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE), has begun to hire a coordinator, who would additionally lead the distribution team, which addresses emergency food responses and the needs of food insecure people who may have also lost jobs. The team is working with rural food pantries, including those in Groton, Enfield and Caroline, as well as organizations such as the Friendship Donation Network, which makes donations from groceries and safe rescued food available, and the Food Bank of the Southern Tier, which keeps a list of local food pantries and organizes monthly drive-through Community Food Distributions. The food bank has also been producing 600 food boxes every week for distribution to families in need. 

The team is working to identify socially isolated, food insecure and immunocompromised people, while the United Way of Tompkins County is coordinating with such services as Foodnet/Meals on Wheels to deliver food to people in need.

The production team – led by Graham Savio, agriculture & horticulture issue leader at CCE, and Anu Rangarajan, director of the Cornell Small Farm Program – will support food producers who face challenges, such as reduced labor coupled with unpredictable surges in demand, and transitions to online ordering and new distribution systems due to consumer reluctance to visit farmers markets, for instance.

The team is supporting local food production to counter supply chain disruptions and rising unemployment rates, helping people grow container gardens at home, and making empty lots available for community gardens for low-income people. 

The health and communication team – led by Lara Parrilla ‘99, community and academic partnership manager and a visiting lecturer in the Master of Public Health Program, and Amy Frith, associate professor of nutrition and child development at Ithaca College ­– includes Tompkins County Health Department personnel, who are working to inform people involved in food production and distribution about staying healthy and safe. They are also trying to acquire masks and gloves for farm and food distribution workers.

Dial 211 for more information about food resources.

Media Contact

Abby Butler