December 18, 2019

Orange County union’s fight against hunger goes year-round

Author: Liza Frenette
Source:  NYSUT Communications
food drive
Caption: Stock photo via Getty Images.

The Montgomery Food Pantry is a long, narrow and plain white building on State Route 208. It is open one morning and one evening a week so families can come once a month to pick up food. There is often a line.

“You see the line. You’re shocked. You didn’t realize these were people in need – families of students. You would never know,” said Rich Steger, president of the Valley Central Teachers Association. “To swallow your pride, to get on that line for your family, is huge.”

The 700-member Valley Central TA, made up of both teachers and School-Related Professionals, decided they needed to do more. While the union has held food drives for the pantry, five years ago they decided to make a solid, ongoing commitment to help out hungry community members. Under the leadership of former president Tim Brown, the union negotiated payroll deduction so members could donate a set amount of each paycheck toward the community food pantry.

Three years ago, the Backpack Snack Attack was added as another optional deduction. This is a program run by volunteers from the First Reformed Church of Walden to provide food for students in need on the weekends.

The TA generates about $14,000 a year to Montgomery Food Pantry. “Isn’t that amazing? It’s so fantastic,” said food pantry treasurer Peter Sullivan, noting the income has enabled the pantry to provide families 7-8 meat choices instead of just ground burger and chicken patties. Now, a family can choose two meats from ham steak, kielbasa, turkey, meatballs, chicken tenders.

Montgomery Food Pantry
Photo provided.

“We serve 170 families a month and buy 4-6,000 pounds of food a month,” said Sullivan. The pantry purchases the food from a food bank. With money from the teachers, “there is more certainty to our planning. It makes a lot of difference.”

Members of the Valley Central TA have donated a total of $72,146 to Montgomery Food Bank since the union initiated its payroll deduction program; and another $18,787 to the Back Pack Snack Attack.

In addition to the payroll deduction donations, some union educators work as volunteers in the pantry as well. Items need to be sorted, shelved and pre-bagged.

“Kids and people are hungry year round,” said Steger, a physical education teacher. With payroll deduction, the food pantry has a steady supply of income. “These are the things that matter,” he said.

“This type of initiative is not an isolated instance in New York,” said NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Philippe Abraham. “ The more I speak to our rank-and-file members and leaders around the state, the more I can confirm the incredible generosity of our teachers, staff-related professionals, health care workers and higher education colleagues.

“My goal is two-fold: a) to have all of our members informed about those stories so as to illustrate the good that we do as locals and NYSUT members around the state; and b) inspire those who may be thinking about starting similar programs to use what was already established as a starting point,” Abraham said.

In school, Steger said teachers can see the difference in students who now do not have to face daily hunger.

With some students, the need was obvious, and it impacts their learning and their health. One student had hair falling out from malnourishment. Being well fed improves students’ physical health, morale and learning capability.

“Hungry children and children suffering from poor nutrition struggle to learn and thrive. Our members see this each and every day,” Steger said.

With the Backpack Snack Attack, run by volunteers through a church program, snacks and easy-to-cook foods are purchased for students. They are brought to school in brown bags, and given to teachers. When students are out of their homeroom and at their specials classes, teachers put the food into the backpacks of those students who need extra food at home for the weekend. The discreet placement keeps the students’ situations private.

Steger said the VCTA’s motto is that “There are no greater advocates for children and education than teachers and teacher unions."

The Montgomery food pantry is available to residents living in the Valley Central School District, who can pick up food once a month – enough to provide them with a 3-4 day supply of food. It is a privately run pantry staffed by volunteers from five local churches in Montgomery and nearby Walden. Most of its funding comes from private donations and local food drives, coupled with some state grants, and they purchase food at food banks at a lesser cost.

Sullivan said individual donations from the public have decreased since the tax laws changed. He said the school community still continues to support the pantry with teacher and student-run food drives. In January, the elementary schools stage a “Souper Bowl” to see which students bring in the most soup cans.

Then just this week, VCTA teachers Amanda Gliedman, Antoinette Oakes and Henry Pisonia – who serve as senior class advisors – helped a cadre of students drop off 1,000 pounds of food from a high school holiday food drive.

“We really appreciate the support,” Sullivan said.