Keith Payne, right, a research technician in plant breeding and genetics, Isaiah Parker ’03, center, and Gabriel Lee, doctoral student in theoretical physics, prepare lunch at Loaves & Fishes. Parker is the organization’s chef and operations manager.

Cornellians help keep Loaves & Fishes going during pandemic

By March 13, it seemed clear that the COVID-19 pandemic would force Loaves & Fishes of Tompkins County to shut its doors to the public.

Karinna Browning ’17, a major gifts associate in Alumni Affairs and Development, and Grant Rowlands, a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering, clean dishes in the kitchen at Loaves & Fishes.

Thanks to careful planning, three days later the community kitchen had ramped up to continue its free meal service to the needy – now packaged to go.

Within a month, the number of meals provided had more than doubled, from 450 to almost 1,100 per week.

“We will serve meals from the front yard of our home at St. John’s Church [210 N. Cayuga St., Ithaca] for as long as necessary to ensure the most vulnerable members of our community do not go hungry in these unprecedented times,” says Katy Noonan ’81, Loaves & Fishes’ community relations manager.

Using strict preparation and social distancing protocols, operations manager and chef Isaiah Parker ’03 leads a small group of mask-clad staff and volunteers – many of them Cornellians – each weekday to prepare fresh, nutritious meals. And when some people could not pick up meals due to illness, homelessness, quarantine, transportation or caregiving issues, Loaves & Fishes forged new partnerships – with the Tompkins County Department of Social Services, Tompkins County Department of Health, St. John’s Community Services and other organizations – to deliver meals.

Although Loaves & Fishes and Cornell have no formal relationship, the Cornell stamp is evident at every level of the organization. Typically, Loaves & Fishes hosts some 100 Cornell undergraduate and graduate-student volunteers and 20 student groups every semester; that translates into more than 1,000 alumni over the past three decades who have ties to the organization.

“Students often describe us as the very best place to volunteer in Ithaca,” Noonan said.

Many staff, faculty and retirees regularly volunteer, too. Various Cornell entities – from the School of Hotel Administration and the Johnson Graduate School of Management, to Alumni Affairs and Development – bring groups of staff annually to volunteer as teams, often as part of staff development and team-building activities. Humphrey fellows – midcareer professionals from developing countries – become regular volunteers, as well.

More than half of Loaves & Fishes’ board members have Cornell connections, and half of the staff are alumni – including Cara Smith ’21, the newest hire as part-time kitchen manager assistant. A biology major with her sights set on medical school, Smith had worked at Cornell Dining since her freshman year, but when she saw the job listing, “Knowing Loaves & Fishes’ mission, I jumped at the opportunity,” she said.

Smith was hired in mid-February to work two dinner shifts, but since the COVID-19 pandemic Smith’s classes have shifted to online, and she has a lot more flexibility.

Carolline Ascenção, postdoctoral cancer researcher at the Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology, prepares for the take-out meal service at Loaves & Fishes.

“These past two weeks, I was able to step in when one of our staff members took two weeks off for a new baby,” she said. “Normally I’d have classes and lectures on campus, but now I can watch the lectures later.”

The youngest person on staff, Smith mingles with community members as they line up in the yard for meals. The guests know that if they need something – like a toiletry item or mask – she’s the one to ask.

“The first week [after the shutdown],” Smith said, “I was the one who had to tell guests they couldn’t sit on the benches or come too close, but now everyone’s really good about it.”

The economic downturn resulting from COVID-19 has triggered financial instability for many community members, resulting in more food insecurity in the county, said Rev. Christina Culver, Loaves & Fishes’ executive director.

“Expenses are up as we serve more people, and food donations and corporate sponsorships are down, but we are determined to continue our mission uninterrupted to provide free meals and advocacy for those in need, just as we have for the past 37 years,” said Culver, adding that she moved up the organization’s summer appeal to this spring, in hopes that individual donations will help make up the deficit.

Free meal-to-go service is available every weekday from the front courtyard of St. John’s Church; donations are gratefully accepted.

Susan S. Lang ’72, retired managing editor of the Cornell Chronicle, is a board member of Loaves & Fishes of Tompkins County.

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Abby Butler