March 31, 2020

WNY member launches community food pantry

Author: Liza Frenette
Source:  NYSUT Communications
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food pantry
Caption: Ken-Ton Cares founder Jill O’Malley is a member of Faculty Federation of Erie Community College. Photo provided.

In the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic, more and more families are finding themselves in need. Within four days of the COVID-19 related closures, college professor Jill O’Malley — who already runs an organization providing clothing, school supplies, toiletries, and other materials to needy families — pulled together her network to launch a much-needed food pantry in her Western New York community.

“We have several food pantries in the area, but their stipulation is to prove income and need,” said O’Malley, a member of the Faculty Federation of Erie Community College. This pop-up pantry was needed because “someone who didn’t have a financial need two weeks ago may have one now,” she said, noting that many people are out of work since so many businesses were shuttered. The only qualification: residency.

To kick off the project, she whipped up a Facebook page called Ken-Ton Cares. Within two days, 200 people had signed up to donate food, time or money.

O’Malley got permission to use the space in a former school building for a food pantry -- the same building where she had been operating the Ken-Ton Closet for seven years. NYSUT officers had visited the closet in February during the union's “Fund Our Future” bus tour.

"NYSUT members across the state continually step up to provide assistance to needy students and families dealing with food insecurity,” said NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer J. Philippe Abraham, whose office oversees the union’s social justice efforts. "The richest economy in the world should not have its citizens going hungry, let alone its children!" The Ken-Ton food pantry received a much-needed donation from the NYSUT Disaster Relief Fund.

The new pantry and the closet are both located in the Town of Tonawanda Youth Center at 250 Athens Boulevard.

food pantry
Deliveries at a socially safe distance. Photo provided.

“We had a sanitizing crew in the next day and started accepting donations the day after that,” she said. O’Malley’s union creds and connections with a caring community of educators and staff helped draw volunteers from the Kenmore Teachers Association, Buffalo Teachers Federation, and Kenmore Tonawanda School Employees Association.

Kara Pezzino, who normally works as a monitor at the Charles Lindbergh Elementary School in Tonawanda is now volunteering daily at the new pantry. Mondays and Wednesdays, people drop off food donations, and the grocery items are sanitized, checked for expiration dates, and sorted. Other food is purchased with cash donations. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, people who signed up can come get their food at assigned times.

“If you need help, you need help. Come and get it,” she said. Pezzino is often the one in the window, handing out two boxes and a bag for each family. She hands the food to Kenmore Tonawanda SEA colleague Bart Besancon, who pops a trunk and loads it into a family’s car. This way, no one is running in and out of the building, which has been cleaned and sanitized.

“We wear gloves. We keep to the regulations,” Pezzino said.

Food can be picked up between 9 and 11 a.m., and again from 5 to 7 p.m. So far, O’Malley said, 60 families and 20 adults are being served.

When she’s not overseeing the food pantry, O’Malley, a mom of three school-age children, is teaching biology to her college students online. She is also president of the Kenmore Town of Tonawanda district school board. Her husband Matthew O’Malley, a member of the Kenmore TA, teaches high school special education.

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