South Wedge Food Program – 40 Years of Serving and Love

Did you know that one of the longest running food pantries in Rochester NY originated and continues to operate at the site of ROC SALT? The South Wedge Food Program (SWFP) which began at Calvary St Andrews, now serves up to 400 families per month and with a steady stream of multi-talented and diverse volunteers (from neighborhood residents, social workers, retired teachers, veterans and more), the program has experienced numerous changing models of operation. In the mid-1970s under Rev Judy Lee Hay, the program began as a linkage with Southeast Ecumenical Ministries (SEM) and vegetables were provided with the assistance of many parties including Ingrid Overacker and Pittsford Presbyterian Church.   In the 1980s, Hay had a partnership with Abbey of the Genesee in Piffard, New York and from Brother Anthony, the SWFP was provided fresh baked loaves of bread.   By the 90s, a partnership with Foodlink was gained.  Mitch Gruber, who worked for Foodlink and lived across the street, urged Calvary to think about the merits of a community garden.

At one time the food program had a model of giving out uniform bags containing the same food to people in the community who needed it.  Today, the model lends consideration is given to cultures represented, and dietary needs combined with empowerment.   People who use the food pantry have agency to choose what items they want in an atmosphere that remains relaxed, still greets guests like family and feels like a neighborhood store.

The food program is needed more than ever in the South Wedge.  The neighborhood has attracted the eyes of many developers in the area who are responding to a buzz of new residents willing to pay higher prices to live in the South Wedge.   While this brings upscale ice cream shops, cafes, salons and niche grocery stores…the original character of the neighborhood changes and the original residents in lower income brackets who are not living in subsidized housing or own property find it harder to remain in the neighborhood and get priced out.  Combine that with the reality of stagnant wages over the last 25 years and the out of pocket expenses of medical care for the aging and residents on fixed incomes.  

Food insecurity becomes a reality in these conditions as well as growing poverty.   However, according to Rev. Katie Jo Suddaby, who directs operations of the pantry, poverty in Rochester can be hidden.    Rochester neighborhoods and nearby suburbs of Monroe County are divided by income and demographics.   It can be easy to live life in Rochester and be disconnected and unaware.  This can apply to many other cities throughout our nation.   Nationwide, Rochester ranks in the top five of cities where child poverty is experienced. 

Katie Jo is an energetic woman with a sense of ambition, advocacy and mission and she puts this into her leadership.   She came from of family that was engaged in service, both parents in helping professions in which they chose to live and work connected and in service to people of different social strata.  In college, at Roberts Wesleyan, Katie Jo began a grass roots food ministry of her own called “In Jesus Name” where people in the college would pool resources and cook large meals and serve them right in heart of downtown Rochester, right near the central Transit Hub and serve them to all…no questions asked.  This was done several days a week and was one of her main extracurricular activities. The value of local mission and experiencing this is key to Suddaby.   There can be more value and impact for the people and community served that remains than for the server and it costs less money to do so. It encourages us to be more connected to others, less inclined to being selfish and learning how to sacrifice.   People then return back to their local neighborhoods more reflective and conscientious.

While there are over twenty regular volunteers, there were four who were in staff that day I visited.   They represent the many faces of the community and each have key sources of zeal to continue in outreach.   There is Tim who is proudly living in recovery and attending school who comes least three days a week. Martha has worked in various capacities in the 40 plus years history of the food pantry and oversaw the transition of it being a church-based ministry to continuing in outreach after the church closed.  She is a great source of history and spends most days of the week in service there.  Lastly, I met Jamie who manages the social media and posting.   While she is a modest woman, she has a gift of interacting with people and making them feel at home.   The people who use the pantry will often ask about her if she is not present.

Spending time at ROC SALT in service to community can include an experience at the pantry. This is one of the few pantries that serves all zip codes and areas. There is much work to do- from unloading the delivery, sorting, greeting people and more that is never the same each day. During the several holidays, they distribute holiday baskets and can use volunteers. Possibly, your group?