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Herkimer County officials, advocates react to New York state DOH report on food insecurity there

Adult food insecurity in New York state, according to the state Department of Health.
New York state Department of Health
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New York state Department of Health
Adult food insecurity in New York state, according to the state Department of Health.

A recent report from the New York State Department of Health concludes Herkimer County has one of the highest food insecurity rates in the state, but local officials are skeptical.

According to the Department of Health, some 29 percent of Herkimer County adults report being food-insecure, meaning they don’t have enough food to meet their basic needs. One of the poorest counties in New York, with a population of about 60,000, Herkimer County’s average per capita income is $34,394, far below the state average of $47,173, according to U.S. Census data.

But county administrator James Wallace says the numbers don’t match what he’s seeing.

“The services are not being maxed out. I mean, we're not over. Like our, there's no waiting list for Meals on Wheels. There's food at the food pantries, the common size program through Catholic Charities, keeps expanding, and they work with the Food Bank out of Syracuse. So the product is there,” Wallace says.

He says it’s especially perplexing, considering the efficiency of the county social support network.

“We see people with a 97 percent, top, most- tops in the state to get the food stamps out to people to SNAP benefits out to people. So we do that very well. Our food banks, our eight to 10 food banks do extremely good work. And the county Catholic Charities runs a Food Sense program, which offers real quality food to people at a very, very low, low cost. We're kind of curious where that number came from,” Wallace says.

Speaking with WAMC ahead of a scheduled meeting with DOH officials, Wallace says the county’s efforts will continue.

Herkimer County Department of Social Services Commissioner Timothy Seymour says the shape of the county is a likely contributor, stretching nearly 90 miles and more than 20 at its widest. Most of the population is at the south end in towns and villages along the Erie Canal, including Herkimer and Little Falls, while the north end is largely rural save for tourist season.

“There’s that stretch that just might be a transportation issue. I don't know that for sure,” Seymour said.

Seymour says the county has an large older population, as well as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, recipients.

Seymour says he doesn’t attribute the increase entirely to the pandemic.

“Everyone likes to blame COVID. I'm trying not to. But let's think about what was going on during COVID. SNAP benefits were maxed out, people were getting the maximum amount. And it just ended not too long ago,” Seymour said.

Seymour says he believes, based on those surveyed, that the 29 percent number is correct, but says he doesn’t know if the sample was representative of the county.

At any rate, Seymour says hungry residents should screen themselves here.

Tiffany Thomason is with the Community Foundations of Herkimer and Oneida County. She says her group supports those organizations, which directly work with people.

“To help address this annual need that we've been seeing, over the years, we launched the helpful harvest funds, in which all proceeds raised to that fund go towards supporting nonprofit organizations whose goals are to eliminate this concern, and in 2020, to $38,500 was awarded to 33 organizations. And then just this past year, in 2023, we raised over $70,000, awarded to 50 organizations,” Thomason said.

A 2022 Siena College graduate, Alexander began his journalism career as a sports writer for Siena College's student paper The Promethean, and as a host for Siena's school radio station, WVCR-FM "The Saint." A Cubs fan, Alexander hosts the morning Sports Report in addition to producing Morning Edition. You can hear the sports reports over-the-air at 6:19 and 7:19 AM, and online on WAMC.org. He also speaks Spanish as a second language. To reach him, email ababbie@wamc.org, or call (518)-465-5233 x 190. You can also find him on Twitter/X: @ABabbieWAMC.