By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media
RAVENA — For the past 13 years, Helping Harvest has helped provide struggling families and individuals in the area with both food and dignity.
Helping Harvest, located in Faith Plaza on Route 9W, is a program of the Hopefull Life Center, and provides low-income families with a way to purchase food and household products at steeply discounted prices, while at the same time allowing them to retain their dignity, Executive Director Rebecca Flach said at an open house Nov. 16.
“At Helping Harvest, our goals are always to provide easy access to low-cost food, to give families lots of choices, to let them take as much as they need, to increase their nutrition intake, to let them shop with dignity by treating the program as a special co-op that is just for them,” Flach said. “And, of course, we are here to help stretch their food budgets.”
Pastor Chuck Engelhardt is president and CEO of the board of directors at the Hopefull Life Center, and said when Helping Harvest first got started, he wanted to replicate a program his brother operated in Margaretville.
“It is a Community Assistance Program, where you take in food and you disburse that food, but you ask for a donation as part of the program,” Engelhardt said. “The donation is to help pay the bills, it keeps food coming in and out, but it also allows us to be open six days a week for four-hour blocks. Food pantries, because of their funding, typically are only able to serve their clients once a month. Our goal was to be open more to serve more.”
There are other benefits to asking members to pay a reduced price for their food.
“By asking for a donation, there is a self-esteem component,” Engelhardt said. “People are contributing because their donation is being used to help others.”
The program launched at the end of 2009 on a limited basis and has grown exponentially over the years.
“This is a Godsend, it is a miracle here in Coeymans because they are serving people with dignity and that’s the whole point,” said board member and Town Councilwoman Linda Bruno. “Last year alone, 160 new families enrolled in this program and there was a 55% increase over 2022. They have served more than 1,700 members since 2010, and families have been able to buy $186,000 worth of groceries in 2022.”
Since the inception of the program, countless individuals have been fed through Helping Harvest.
“Over the 13 years that we have been here, we have managed to send home $1.5 million worth of food, if it was sold at full retail value, over the course of 13 years,” Flach said. “It went into the homes and into the bellies of hungry people in the community.”
Helping Harvest is not limited to serving residents in Albany County — its members are spread out over five counties.
Members of Helping Harvest can purchase meat, packaged foods, produce, canned goods, and other products that aren’t allowed under SNAP — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps — such as personal hygiene and household cleaning products. Prices are reduced from 10% to 50% off what members would pay in a traditional store.
To join Helping Harvest, applicants complete a simple form, and membership is free. Once they are approved, they are issued a membership card and can begin shopping immediately.
“Generally, families can take as much as they need — they are not restricted, like a food pantry might be,” Flach said. “I have seen some members take shopping carts overflowing with food out of this place and it’s the best feeling ever.”
Providing the service is not easy, nor is it cheap. The organization is also looking for ways to fund it to make Helping Harvest self-sufficient.
“We really want to create a food co-op for the community where everyone can shop and where we can still take care of our low-income families,” Flach said, adding that they also want to add a food delivery service for members who are unable to travel to the co-op, as well as nutrition education programs.
Flach said she is working on applying for grants but is also looking for assistance from the community with everything from food and monetary donations to volunteers. All donations are tax deductible.
Helping Harvest is open to its members 24 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. While stretching food dollars is a primary goal of the program, some of its most important benefits are intangible.
“While I love the value that we provide to the members, what I appreciate the most about Helping Harvest are the byproducts of the program — the dignity, the volunteerism, and the community mindedness that it generates,” Flach said. “It’s a model that honors self-sufficiency with a little help for struggling families so they can provide for themselves and get the nutrition that they need, too.”