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Willow Roots needs new home

PINE PLAINS — There’s a treasure hunt going on in Pine Plains these days — but don’t expect “X” to mark the spot or to find a chest filled with baubles.

The true treasure will be a new home for one of the town’s  most valued possessions: Willow Roots food pantry. The home grown pantry currently runs out of the residence of its founders, Lisa and Nelson Zayas, feeding residents from around the Tri-state region facing the spectre of food insecurity — more commonly known by those experiencing it as hunger.

It began on the Zayases’ front porch, where families could pick up excess produce farmers left rather than burdening landfills with it; the project quickly grew into a full blown food pantry. Not accepting state or federal aid, the all-volunteer effort relies on donations of all sorts, including everything from canned goods and gently-used clothing to the occasional pheasants and venison, compliments of local hunters and a butcher who prepares the meat.

Soon, Willow Roots provided a lifeline for the burgeoning numbers of families hard hit by the pandemic, with numbers rising from a pre-pandemic average of 24 households, serving 66 people, to an average of roughly 40-plus households, serving more than 100. It has served as many as 69 households, feeding up to 210 individuals.

By January, when the weekly Saturday morning distribution began to have an impact on the quiet adjacent street, residents who, while admiring the work being done by the Pine Plains couple, were concerned about their changing quality of life, appealed to the Pine Plains Planning Board.

Demonstrating a spirit of understanding, Lisa said, “Maybe we don’t belong in this area anyway. Maybe it’s a godsend showing us we should probably move… some place in the area where we could have the pantry” and eventually other programs.

The acknowledgement led to a search for a new location for either a dual use or a commercially zoned building — anything from a house to a barn —which could be equipped with electricity to handle the pantry’s refrigeration needs. Despite having reasonable funds for rent and associated expenses,  nothing suitable was found.

Lisa also noted that although the town does have its long-running Pine Plains Community Food Locker at the Methodist Church, located at 4146 E. Church St. (Route 199) that’s affiliated with the Regional Food Bank of New York, stairs at the church make for difficult access for seniors, and the facility offers food only once a month, so a joint operation isn’t workable.

As they deliberated at their January and February meetings, members of the Planning Board, some of whom have themselves donated to the pantry, recognized how critical Willow Roots is to many in the community. Knowing that the needs will not disappear when the pandemic passes, they are now working to provide a common sense solution that will allow the pantry to continue operating at least through January 2022, while lessening the burden on the residential neighborhood.

Despite the good intentions of all involved, however, the result could be a bandage at best. Nelson worries that if a permanent solution can’t be found, the pantry may close, which, he said, “would be a shame.” 

Speaking as an occasional volunteer herself, Pine Plains  town Supervisor Darrah Cloud, who is not part of the zoning process, agreed.

“I think that they have done more for this town in a lot of ways than [anyone] else during this time,” she said of Willow Roots, noting it’s even delivered essentials to homes of those who can’t get to the pantry in person.

Cloud concluded, “It’s a judgment-free environment. If you need them, they will help you… They’ve  been very essential to the town, and the town wants them to succeed. We definitely want to find a better home for them that’s bigger and more conducive to what they do.”

Anyone with suggestions is asked to call the pantry at 518-751-0164. For more details on food pantries in the area, go to www.tricornernews.com/food-pantries.

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