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Supporting Rochester City Children and Families Throughout the COVID-19 Pandemic

Foodlink, the City of Rochester, and Rochester City School Districts Establish Emergency Meal Distribution Program

In mid-February 2020, Julia Tedesco, president and CEO of Foodlink, recalled reading an article about coronavirus (COVID-19) that really struck her and her COO, Tara Keller—so much so that she brought it up that same day at a Foodlink leadership meeting. She knew she and her team needed to be prepared if a COVID-19 outbreak struck the local community. Her team huddled and devised an in-depth strategy—one like they had never done before.

A local coronavirus outbreak meant that some changes would need to be made to several of their day-to-day operations. Some initiatives would have to be temporarily halted for safety, and staff would need to be redirected to support emergency services. They mapped out a plan and were ready should an outbreak strike locally.

“We needed to ensure that we were ready to mobilize quickly if and when coronavirus hit our community to ensure everyone, and particularly our most vulnerable community members, had access to food,” said Tedesco. “Planning consisted of a variety of scenarios, but two things we needed to make sure of were that no one would go hungry and that no one would have to stand in a long line for food with a contagious virus at large.”

On March 12, the very first COVID-19 case was reported in Monroe County. Two days later, on a Saturday, schools were officially closed. For the children in the city of Rochester that relied on two, sometimes three, meals per day at school or an after-school program, this was a problem.

Within 24 hours of schools closing, Foodlink and longstanding partners, the Rochester City School District (RCSD) and the City of Rochester, quickly joined forces to implement emergency food distribution for school-age children in the city beginning March 16. The City’s R-Center locations, along with select RCSD sites, were an instrumental part of the operation, serving as central hubs for food distribution and collection. Funding programs provided to Foodlink and the RCSD also helped produce the additional support needed to meet the demand for meals.

“We didn’t skip a beat for the children,” said Dr. Daniele Lyman-Torres, commissioner of the Department of Recreation and Youth Services, City of Rochester, and in charge of R-Centers. “Julia and I had been staying in close contact prior to the pandemic to align on how we would collaborate on emergency efforts if COVID-19 hit locally. As soon as we got the official order for schools closing, we immediately coordinated with Foodlink, R-Centers, and RCSD to get program details squared away.”

Rochester's R-Centers offer programs, facilities, and professional staff to promote healthy living, education, creativity, self-discovery, and positive relationships. Nine of the 14 R-Centers in Rochester were designated as locations for children to pick up meals, Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The centers offered breakfast, lunch, and dinner grab-and-go meals throughout the day—including extra meals and preparation on Friday to accommodate weekend meals as well.

The health and safety of all involved was a top priority. Grab-and-go lines were set up outside with tape that marked at least six feet between people to establish proper social distance, and all staff and volunteers were equipped with personal protective gear. Increased sanitation protocols were put in place and performed regularly to maximize the health and safety of the children, staff, and volunteers.

To date, Foodlink, the City of Rochester, and the Rochester City School District have served nearly 1.4 million meals in response to COVID-19. A real-time tracker of meals served can be found online at

Response time from local organizations and selfless employees and volunteers made all the difference for children and families in the city of Rochester. The quick movement of all parties allowed for the continuation of critical meals that children depended on.

Tedesco noted, “In the face of a crisis where we tried our best to prepare, there were still many unknown situations, but we really leaned into who we are at our core: our values. Compassion, agility, stewardship, collaboration, and innovation—I watched each and every team member shift into a new emergency role and live each of those values every day. Our values became a meaningful reality for us and we’re incredibly grateful to our amazing partners for helping us make initiatives like this possible.”

“It was a tremendous effort from everyone involved. It was all about feeding the children, and it’s a true testament of courage and selflessness from all of our partners, staff, and volunteers who helped make this initiative possible—and especially for organizing as quickly as it did,” added Lyman-Torres.

*Please note, this is only one of many of the initiatives that Foodlink, the City of Rochester, and RCSD have implemented throughout the pandemic. For more information about the organizations or initiatives, please visit the respective links above.