Schenectady charity meets COVID-19 challenge for Thanksgiving

Photo of Leigh Hornbeck

Editor's Note: This article is part of the Times Union's annual Capital Region Gives section, which highlights the work local nonprofits are performing in the area. The editorial theme this year is "From Shutdown to Recovery," focusing on all the ways our community came together and gave back during the coronavirus pandemic. Vote for your favorite Capital Region nonprofits in the Big $100,000 Giveaway. You can vote once per day until 11:59 p.m. Dec. 10, 2020.

SCHENECTADY — There was the year it was warmer inside the refrigerator truck than it was outside, and volunteers slipped on an ice-coated ramp at the Armory as they carried boxes in and out. But in the more than four decades Concerned for the Hungry has been giving away boxes of food for Thanksgiving, nothing has made it harder than COVID-19.

Long lines at events organized to feed the hungry during the pandemic show the need is high, so Concerned for the Hungry presses on.

The group was founded in 1979 and collects food year-round to support local food pantries, but the Thanksgiving food drive is its biggest event. About 2,300 families from Schenectady County receive a box of food, including a frozen turkey, said the group’s secretary, Larry Lewis.

A perfect storm of troubles has made the goal harder to reach. Two major fundraisers - one at the Stockade-athon and one at the Glenville Wal-Mart - were canceled this year.

“Food prices are up, volunteers are scared off because of COVID-19 and the number of people doing food drives for us is down,” Lewis said, adding the group has savings the leadership will draw from to meet the need this year.

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Concerned for the Hungry has been in financial straits before, Lewis said. In 2008, he thought the Great Recession would break them.

Then, there are the logistical challenges of gathering volunteers to fill boxes during a pandemic. It is a major operation at Keane Elementary School on Albany Street. Supplies - nonperishable goods, hundreds of bags of onions; apples and bread - fill the gym.

One stroke of luck? The school is not being used by students this year, so Lewis has one less worry when it comes to keeping people masked and 6 feet apart.

Under guidance from the state Department of Health and legal advice, the group’s board switched the application process for a box from in person to online. Schenectady County residents hoping to receive a box had until Oct. 30 to sign up online and then mail a copy of qualifying documents (a referral, a letter showing they get energy assistance, a WIC card) to the office.

Lewis said the group is bringing in fewer volunteers at a time to hand out boxes, cutting some items from the box and taking more time to get through all the steps. Volunteers bring each box through a series of stations until it is filled and ready to go.

In addition to the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern NY, Concerned for the Hungry has relationships with Schoharie Valley Farms. This year, Riverview Orchards invited volunteers to pick apples for the cause.

A variety of local businesses sponsor the food drive, and although donations of food are fewer, schools throughout the county and the Boy Scouts pitched in.

Leftover food is divided between the county’s food pantries.

More Information

If you would like to make a donation to Concerned for the Hungry, go to its website,

Despite the difficulties - the logistical problems of previous years seem simple now, Lewis said - the motivation is simple, and so is the reward.

“We get to see every single client in person, and we hear the thanks and the ‘bless you.’”

Read more from the Capital Region Gives section: Community Caregivers volunteers give, but get back plenty