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The Cayuga/Seneca Community Action Agency kicked off its 15th annual Feinstein Challenge on March 1 to raise money for hunger relief. Each year, Alan Shawn Feinstein of the Feinstein Foundation divides $1 million among agencies providing hunger relief nationwide, to assist them in their fundraising efforts between March and April. Any monetary and food donations and pledges our agency receives between March 1 and April 30 will count towards the Feinstein Challenge. The more donations we receive, the greater our portion of the Feinstein Challenge money we will receive to help us provide more food for our customers. In 2011, the agency's staff raised more than $4,500 toward the challenge.

At the agency, food security and hunger relief are issues our staff must address daily. The agency has seen a marked increase in the number of individuals and families seeking assistance for food. We are seeing more and more middle-class families with jobs seeking food assistance, as they struggle to make ends meet. According to the Center for Governmental Research (2012), from 2000-2010, the rate of food stamp use increased nearly 150 percent in Cayuga County and 84 percent in Seneca County. According to the American Community Survey (2012), the number of individuals living below the poverty level in both Cayuga and Seneca counties is 12,476. Our agency provided emergency food assistance to 6,442 individuals and served a total of 150,573 meals between October 2010 and September 2011 alone.

It is challenging to comprehend how a region like ours, which is filled with rolling hills of arable farmland and an abundance of fresh water, can manage to have thousands go hungry each and every day.

As we continue to raise money and promote awareness of hunger in our community, we find that we cannot sustain the current reactionary system of addressing hunger, given uncertainties with the economy and corresponding fluctuations in donations to our food pantry. In keeping with our mission to promote self-sufficiency, we are in the process of developing innovative methods to provide hunger relief to communities throughout Cayuga and Seneca counties. One of the ways we aim to do this is by growing fresh produce year-round in a passive greenhouse (one that does not require any supplemental heat or electricity). Passive greenhouses, hoop houses or high tunnels, as they are otherwise known, have proven to be useful tools that communities can utilize to grow food consistently all year, regardless of climate conditions. Donations to the agency would help us implement passive greenhouses to grow cold-hardy crops like spinach, lettuce, kale and carrots, so that we may provide our food pantry visitors with a steady supply of fresh, highly nutritious produce throughout the year.

We are also getting ready to expand our Head Start Garden at our location on Brookfield Place, to engage children in our Early Childhood Program in sowing, growing, harvesting and preparing fresh food. We hope to inculcate in our children healthy eating habits and an appreciation for how food is produced. We would like to do the same for their parents through our various education programs.

In addition, we strongly believe in engaging area college students in public service initiatives by encouraging their participation in customized internship programs to address hunger relief, whether through direct services at our food pantry, community gardening initiatives through our Head Start Garden, or via the planning, implementation and cultivation of a high tunnel for year-round food production.

If you are interested in assisting our agency in providing hunger relief to thousands of area residents by volunteering your time, becoming an intern or by sending us a monetary or food donation, please contact me at 255-1703 ext. 155, or email rvas@cscaa.com. We are grateful for your continued commitment to our programs, and we look forward to your participation in providing hunger relief for our community.

Rachna Vas is the grant writer and marketing director for the Cayuga/Seneca Community Action Agency, in Auburn. She can be reached at 255-1703 ext. 155.

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