By Kathryn Walsh | Photography by Alexis Emm
Amalia Swan is doing her part to keep children in Central New York from going to bed hungry.
It’s a big job. An estimated 13 million American children live in food-insecure homes, without reliable access to nutritious food. As the director of outreach and child nutrition for the Food Bank of Central New York, she and her team work to keep the children and families in our area fed all year long. It’s a mission she’s been working toward since 1995, when she first joined the Food Bank.
When she started, her job was to increase participation in federal feeding programs, with a focus on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, then known as food stamps.
“I would go out into communities, go to senior centers — any place that would give me a soapbox — and talk about SNAP and the benefits of participation,” Amalia remembered.
Her role has evolved and changed over the years, but her focus has remained the same.
“I’ve had several positions here, but my one constant has been the nutrition outreach and education program,” she said. “My baby has always been my baby.”
Today, Amalia works on two programs that target local kids in need. Kids Cafe is an after-school program that provides kids with meals, enrichment activities and a safe place to do homework. The Summer Food Service Program provides breakfast and lunch to children during the summer, when they don’t have access to the food they normally get in school.
And, of course, she’s still involved in SNAP outreach. She and her staff — she oversees six people — help families in need apply for SNAP benefits.
But that’s not all: when families come to the Food Bank looking for help getting food, Amalia and her team also connect them with other resources they might need.
“So not only are you going to leave us with a completed application, but you’re going to be referred to other services that you’re entitled to as well,” she explained.
Those services might include free or reduced-cost school lunches, health care coverage or heating subsidies. The Food Bank also offers diabetes screening, provides nutrition education at local farmers markets and supports local growers by buying local whenever possible.
Amalia’s job requires her to wear many different hats, and no two days are the same. For the summer feeding program, she’s involved with everything from finding sites to overseeing the transport and storage of meals. The outreach portion of her job involves creating and nurturing partnerships with the departments of social services in neighboring counties.
Although her days are busy, she still finds time to go into homes and meet with the families who rely on the Food Bank’s services. Working with families is one of her favorite parts of the job.
Finding time to do it all is a challenge sometimes. The self-professed “crazy soccer mom” has four kids between the ages of 15 and 24. Her husband, James, is a nurse at Upstate University Hospital.
And she and her coworkers at the Food Bank are their own kind of family. Like Amalia, Food Bank staff members tend to stay put for a long time.
“We have a great team. That’s one of the reasons why you stay as long as you do,” she said. “They’ve become part of that mission — to make sure we feed people and feed them well.”
Feeding people well is the Food Bank’s specialty. The organization helped 1,618 households access SNAP benefits in 2016, which accounts for more than 1.7 million meals. During the 2015-16 school year, the Kids Cafe program served 515 local kids, providing 79,203 meals in total. And this year, the Food Bank plans to serve more than 25,000 meals to area kids through its summer feeding program, which operates at 14 different sites in three counties.
Amalia learned about the power of feeding the hungry at a young age. Her mother was known for opening her home to family members and anyone else who needed help. She had a tendency to hire strangers to do odd jobs, for which she would pay them not with cash, but with food.
“We were able to give him a meal,” Amalia remembers her mother saying.
“She was my inspiration,” Amalia said, “and she continues to be.”
Amalia shares that inspiration with others in her field. Recently, she took on a project with Feeding America, sharing her expertise with similar, developing organizations.
“I was a capacity advisor for seven different food banks across the country,” Amalia said. “We worked on sustainability and process improvement. They all have current outreach programs, so my job is to help them, to look at their processes to see what they could change [and] to improve their process.”
Sharing her skills with other food banks may take her out of town, but her passion for feeding the people of Central New York remains her focus. She wants area families to know they can turn to the Food Bank of CNY for help.
“We want to do as much as we can to feed folks, educate folks and let folks know that we’re here,” Amalia said. SWM
For more information on the Food Bank of CNY, or to get involved, visit foodbankcny.org.