Neighbors nourish neighbors in the Hilltowns — can they keep it up?

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

Hilltown Community Resource Center volunteer Winnifred Seymour, left, stands with program assistant Brenda Burke in 2020.

HILLTOWNS — In a year that for many families has been just as financially and spiritually draining as the last, three organizations in the Hilltowns have given away tens of thousands of pounds of food, feeding hundreds of households that comprise thousands of individuals in the greater Hilltown area — but inflation and other economic difficulties may mean those numbers aren’t enough to help those in need in 2022.

 Altogether, the Hilltowns Community Resource Center, A Hug from the Hilltowns, and the Capital District Area Labor Federation have served a total of 34,200 individuals (not accounting for repeat visitors and those who draw from more than one distributor) at least 51,000 pounds of fresh and canned food, according to leaders from each group and a representative from the Northeast Regional Food Bank. 

That’s 2,850 people per month, which is near the total population for each of the four Hilltowns: Westerlo, Berne, Knox, and Rensselaerville. But it doesn’t count less formal donations, such as those made through Little Free Pantry boxes that have been set up on the Hill, which people can leave food in or take food from.

The labor federation alone, in conjunction with Catholic Charities and the Northeast Regional Foodbank, handed out 14,217 pounds of food to 512 households that hold 1,486 people at its Dec. 28 food distribution event at Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District, the federation’s director, Mark Emanatian, told The Enterprise.

At a similar event in February, 17,363 pounds of food were given to 562 households containing 1,664 people. 

The February event was the first the labor federation held in the Hilltowns, and Emanatian said that the organization would “love to do it again at BKW” following the December hand-out.

Jean Guarino, of A Hug from the Hilltowns, told The Enterprise that, from February to June, the organization was feeding roughly 1,200 people a week, and from June until now it’s been feeding around 375 people per week, on average.

“We have grown off the Hill,” Guarino added. She and Berne resident Peggy Christman currently deliver to Rensselaerville, Richmondville, Cobleskill, Rotterdam, and Albany, Guarino said.

The Hilltowns Community Resource Center, meanwhile, has been feeding an average of 80 families a month, which Director Mary Beth Peterson said amounts to roughly 400 people. From the Northeast Regional Foodbank, the center, which is run by Catholic Charities, ordered 19,142 pounds of food, according to a foodbank representative. 

“That’s southern, rural Albany County, including Preston Hollow,” Peterson said. “We’ve been going to the far-out reaches of the county because the biggest problem in the last two months probably has been the price of gas … With the price of food and heat going up, people have definitely been struggling.”

And, as more people’s budgets get strangled by inflation and other woes, the donations they make are likely to go down, which is reflected in the center’s own receipts.

“We’ve had some wonderful food drives … but monetary donations are definitely down, probably by about 50 percent,” Peterson said. “We’re definitely struggling to keep the pantry stocked because the amount we did last week was insane, because it’s the holiday season.”

“We’re taking more trips to the regional food bank,” Peterson said. “We usually get a delivery once a month, but we’re finding that we’re going up there ourselves at least two extra times a month for food.”

Peterson also said that the resource center is also making more deliveries to families who find themselves having to quarantine, now that COVID-19 cases are once again on the rise.

“They’re not expecting to have to go into quarantine, and we’re having to drop food off for them on their porches,” she said, adding that the center has 12 steady volunteers, though their ranks can increase to 30 when needed, thanks to groups like the Helderberg Kiwanis Club.

Despite the recent difficulties, though, the center has been able to keep handing out the same amount of food to each client.

“We’re keeping the same numbers,” Peterson said. “… but we’re starting to feel the pinch again with COVID and the price of everything.”

More Hilltowns News

  • A digital equity map, put together by a coalition of organizations including the New York State Education Department and the New York State Library, shows that approximately 15 percent of Hilltown households don’t have internet access, whether because they don’t have an internet subscription or because they don’t have internet-capable devices.

  • The Berne Town Board held a public hearing on a new animal-control law this week and received mostly minor suggestions for alteration from a public that seemed largely pleased with the proposed regulations. 

  • The Albany Water Board, steward of the Basic Creek dam in Westerlo, has received $100,000 from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to come up with a design for a rehabilitation project for the high-hazard dam, which is in substandard condition.

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