Friends Fighting Hunger


Lisa, last name withheld, cuts potatoes with Rick Yaniak (from left to right) at St. Joseph's House of Hospitality in Rochester N.Y. on June 27, 2015. Photograph by Kristen McNicholas.
Shannon, last name wittheld, unloads eggplant from that morning's Public Market donations. Photograph by Kristen McNicholas.
Food Not Bombs volunteers cut donated food to prepare for community dinner on Jun. 27, 2015 in Rochester, N.Y. Photograph by Kristen McNicholas.
Khoury Humphrey wears a sign on his back while collecting food donations from the Rochester Public Market on June 13, 2015. Photograph by Gino Fanelli.

<comment>Armed with a beat-up flat bed cart and a blue flannel vest with a back patch reading "Collecting Food For the Shelters! Please Donate, Talk to Me" in scrawled black ink, Khoury Humphrey, 28, embarks into the veritable circus of a Saturday morning in the Rochester Public Market. He approaches a vendor surrounded by stacked loaves of bread.

"You got anything here I can take right now?" Humphrey asked.

"Ya know, we're kind of busy right now," the vendor responded, examining his inventory. "Maybe come back a bit later and I'll have something."

With that, Humphrey wishes the vendor a good day and continues on his trek, a small group of volunteers slowly forming alongside him. Their group ranges from the elderly Charles and Gloria Simmons, him in a light purple work shirt with beige suspenders and her in a gray blazer and sunglasses, to Scott Helfer with his scruffy black beard, to Humphrey himself, with his tattooed knuckles and double-gauged ears. Together, they are anything but the typical image of neighborhood charity.

These are the Flower City Pickers (FCP), an organization Humphrey founded in January of 2015. Their mission is simple: to eliminate food waste from the Public Market by providing free food to shelters, or simply to anyone who needs it. Much of the fresh produce of the market that isn't sold, even if it is perfectly edible, would simply be tossed if it wasn't donated.

"I was recovering from heart surgery at the time," Humphrey said. "And this was around the same time that Sanctuary Village was getting off the ground, and I saw that there was a real need for help, and I wanted to do anything I could to help."

Humphrey refers to Rochester's Sanctuary Village, a safe haven tent city for the homeless founded by the House of Mercy's Sister Grace Kelly, described as "a visible protest of Monroe County's housing and homeless policies."

"So I just started going out and collecting donations," Humphrey said. "Every Saturday I was out there, and soon enough I started to gather some volunteers. Some were friends, some were there to take the stuff that no one could eat for animal feed and others just wanted to help. The numbers changed every week, but rain or shine, we were here."

At time of writing, FCP has been able to provide fresh food to nine distribution sites and seven shelters. This, of course, is only a drop in the bucket in the face of the menace of poverty found in Rochester. According to an analysis done by the Democrat and Chronicle, over a third of Rochester residents are currently living in poverty, which is defined as  an average income of $11,888 or less per year for a single person or $23,624 for a family of four. Even more alarmingly, approximately half of all children born in Rochester are born into poverty.

Perhaps most disturbingly of all, these are not statistics that remotely reflect a national trend. On the national level, only 19.9% of children live in poverty, and that trend is on a downswing. Meanwhile, Rochester tops the list of cities of its size in extreme poverty, with a 2015 report by ACT Rochester declaring that 16.2% of the total population lives on half the amount or less of the poverty threshold.

Janet Keller of the Reformation Lutheran Church Food Cupboard, which collects and distributes food to churches and the community, gave further scope to just how severe the problem is while picking up donations from Humphrey.

"I saw their ad on Craigslist," Keller said. "We've got to have food that will last up until Friday, but we take what we can get. Right now we're serving 3,500 families just in the inner loop."

By these numbers, the demand for cheap or free food is undoubtedly present. When examining the importance of what groups like FCP do, however, it is not simply a matter of feeding the hungry, but of circumventing some of the inherent costs of food waste. According to a 2014 report by the United States Department of Agriculture, $161.6 billion worth of edible food at retail price was wasted in 2010, equating to 141 trillion calories worth of food, or 1,249 calories per person, per day. This comes to almost half of a man's daily recommended intake of 2,640 calories and almost the entirety of a woman's 1,785 calories.

With such a high demand in place and a large supply available — Humphrey claims to have collected over 1,000 pounds of food per day on multiple occasions — FCP has teamed up with Food Not Bombs (FNB), a more well-known national organization with a chapter in Rochester.

Dave Tolar, 30, joins Humphrey with a clean shaven head and an effervescent smile.

"[FCP and FNB] have been working together for awhile now," Tolar said. "Khoury's out here every Saturday, and we've got volunteers out here twice a month with him. We're more on the distribution end of things, while FCP does a great job with collections."

Tolar went on to explain the importance of what these groups do on a fundamental level.

"It's really just simple," he said. "Anywhere you go and you hear [Food Not Bombs], you know it's a place you can go for a free meal. No hassle. And I feel really good about what these two groups are doing. We've got a bunch of people together with their heads screwed on right about the politics. That's what makes it last. However, we do always need more volunteers."

Humphrey passes local musician Roger Kuhn, busking with his resonator guitar near the market's entrance. He kneels down and places a single zucchini into Kuhn's case before heading into the market.

While many vendors welcome FCP and FNB with open arms, there are still bits of resistance found at the market. As Humphrey receives a "Come back later" from a vegetable vendor, he pauses for a moment to discuss a plan of action with his cohorts, his cart hanging just a bit into the walkway.

"You've got somewhere else to go, right?" the vendor asked. "You've got somewhere else to be?"

Humphrey, Tolar and the rest of the volunteers reconvene at the edge of the market, organizing the food based on freshness. RIT alum Sam Richheimer sits at the curb, drawing up signs to attract more donors.

"I'm from Maine," Richheimer said. "I came down here with plans to just stay for a little bit, but ended up staying a lot longer. Right now I'm just working part-time until I find a job in my field."

A young woman in red sunglasses and blue highlights in her blonde crop of hair approached the boxes.

"Hi Sam!" she said boisterously, picking up a box of brownies. "I'm just going to take something sweet."

"Bye Tina," Richheimer sighed as she sauntered off. "She doesn't need it, but you got to love her."

Twice a month, on the second and fourth Saturdays, FNB organizes a community dinner made entirely from donated food and cooked at Saint Joseph's House of Hospitality on 402 South Ave. The rain sprinkling down overhead falls inches away from a scraggly looking man in a black fleece jacket. He smokes down the final quarter of a cigarette as volunteers carry in boxes of produce, most in studded or patched-up clothes more reminiscent of a punk show than a charity event — perhaps because this is not a charity event.

"Charity is a term that is hierarchical in nature," FNB's Rick Yaniak said. "It can be degrading. We consider this an act of solidarity, and this is not just for the poor. Anyone is welcome to join us."

Yaniak went on to explain the political motivations behind FNB.

"At its core, food is not a privilege," Yaniak said. "It's a right, and hunger, or to allow hunger, is an act of violence. We encourage everybody to come down here to eat and grab some groceries. We're against food waste, and we aim to alleviate the burden of the cost of food."

Yaniak went onto explain one of the main differences between FNB and charitable organizations doing similar work.

"You've got a lot of the 501(c)-ers," Yaniak said. "And that's not us; we're not doing this for any sort of tax thing or profits."

"501(c)-ers," as Yaniak refers to them, are non-profit organizations that have been exempt from federal income tax, in this case due to work in a charitable field, but also in cases of medical or scientific research, public safety or amateur sports. The Ronald McDonald House, for example, is a 501(c) organization — an obvious arm of a for-profit organization which is not taxed due to its charitable work. Yaniak believes organizations that aspire to reach this status seek to benefit themselves more than the community.

Outside in the rain, a man walking across the street raises in a fist in the air, chanting "Food not bombs!" again and again before entering an apartment across the street.

The man in the fleece jacket, Steve, strolls in and out of the doorway as the volunteers prepare the meal.

"I came in earlier this morning for breakfast," Steve, a former RIT student, said in a thick Caribbean accent, "and I've just stuck around since then."

As the group discusses and debates different meal options, Yaniak explains his mission in Rochester.

"I got involved initially in December of last year," Yaniak said. "I recently got back from Berkeley, California. There, they have meals five days a week, with lines reaching out the door. The first time I saw it, I almost had to sit down and cry. And I thought, 'Why don't we have that here?' After that, Lisa and I got involved."

With that goal in mind, the FNB Rochester chapter is, by all metrics, humble. The space in which they cook is adorned with a children's painting of Jesus embraced with rainbows on the side wall. In the corner sits a slowly decaying Sohmer upright piano. The kitchen space is fitted with a couple of stove tops and steel counter tops, with several off-beat volunteers scurrying in and around them.

"We usually have 10 or 20 volunteers," "Shannon," a FNB volunteer who wanted her identity to remain anonymous, said. "Things seemed to have slowed down lately, but people come and go."

Despite the modest numbers, Yaniak, as well as all of the FNB volunteers, agree on the importance of their work and what it means to the community.

"Simply put, we're trying to start a revolution," Yaniak said.

Revolution is a simple term, yet draped in a veil of complexity. In essence, it centers around change. But it begs the question: what is change, and where does it start? Perhaps a revolution can be violent, brash, loud, bloody, brimming with fire and smoke and hinged on the death of the oppressors, whomever they may be — or perhaps a revolution can be quiet, hinged on the concern for your fellow man and the undying thirst for a better tomorrow.

For the FCP, the message, the purpose and the power of their mission is summed up by the words of South African HIV/AIDs victim and immortalized advocate of the disease, Nkosi Johnson:

"Do all that you can, with all that you have, in the time that you have, in the place where you are."