Leading Foodlink with a sure hand

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Foodlink has initiated drive-through food dispensing. Here CEO Julia Tedesco is loading food into a vehicle.
(Photos courtesy of Foodlink)

When the coronavirus pandemic reached the Rochester region, Foodlink was forced to shut down or revamp many of its programs. Yet under the leadership of President and CEO Julia Tedesco, the nonprofit has continued supply food and meals to needy families and individuals in 10 upstate counties.

In fact, since mid-March Foodlink has distributed nearly 4 million pounds of food.

“We have increased the amount of food we’re distributing,” Tedesco says.

In March alone, as the crisis peaked here, the nonprofit dispensed about 2.7 million pounds of food—40 percent more than it distributed that month in 2019. 

“We have increased overall what our output to our 10-county region is, but it looks different,” Tedesco says. “How we are meeting that demand has evolved.”

For Foodlink, it’s a good thing she turned down another job offer all those years ago.

A Rochester native, Tedesco was looking for employment during the 2008 recession when she spied Foodlink’s ad for a grant writer.

“I didn’t really know what Foodlink did,” she recalls. “I was grasping at straws.”

A conversation with the late Thomas Ferraro, Foodlink’s founder and executive director, showed her how valuable she could be to the nonprofit and the communities it serves. When the job offer came, Tedesco was ready with an answer.

“I said ‘yes,’ and I’ve never looked back,” Tedesco says.

For more than 40 years, Foodlink has fed the needy, fought to end hunger and worked to build healthier communities in Monroe and its surrounding counties. Annually, as much as 20 million pounds of food goes out from the nonprofit to soup kitchens, food pantries and other nonprofits. Each day, thousands of children enjoy meals that were made in the Foodlink Community Kitchen. The nonprofit’s educational programs have helped families to make and act upon healthy food choices, and trained people for careers in the food industry. 

Foodlink, which operates from its headquarters on Mt. Read Boulevard and a satellite facility on Manitou Road, has about 100 people on its payroll. Its 2020 budget totals $14.3 million.

Coming home

At the time Tedesco applied to Foodlink, she had just acquired a master of public administration degree from Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and moved back to Rochester. She really didn’t want to work as a grant writer, but the 2008 recession was raging and jobs were scarce. Ferraro interviewed her for the job as a grant writer. Well, sort of. 

“We had a really atypical interview,” Tedesco recalls. “He wanted to know who I was and what interested me.” 

Tedesco told Ferraro that while at Maxwell, she’d grown interested in education policy and urban education and health care reform. At the end, he told her the grant writer position had been given to someone else, but that he wanted her to work for him. Ferraro said she could create her own job at Foodlink but admitted he didn’t have a budget for her. On the other hand, he did make a strong argument for joining his organization.

“He convinced me in one conversation that if I cared about education, improving graduation rates in the Rochester City School District, lowering health care costs and improving health outcomes, that I had to care about food first,” she says.

Tedesco had also applied for a position as chief of staff for the Rochester City School District Board of Education. Offers arrived from Foodlink and the school district on the same day, but though the school board offered substantially more money, she decided to go with Foodlink. 

In January 2009, on her 26th birthday, Tedesco joined Foodlink as its new public policy coordinator. 

She quickly demonstrated a willingness to take on just about any job.

“If Tom told me to make copies, I made copies; if he wanted me to go do media, I did media,” she says. “I was willing to do what needed to be done for Foodlink, and I still am.”

Terra Keller

Tedesco also brought her own style of interacting with others. Terra Keller, Foodlink’s chief operating officer, recalls meeting her in 2009. Though Keller was just an intern then, Tedesco became a good friend and mentor.  

“She’s very empathetic, and always puts people first,” Keller says. “That’s something she has instilled in me over the years.”

That quality has helped Keller work more effectively with employees who aren’t meeting expectations.

“As a leader, something she’s taught me is to take a second and put yourself in their shoes,” Keller explains. “Think (about) what they could have going on in their life, and really approach them from a human aspect.”

Building relationships

By 2010, Tedesco had risen to the position of chief development and communications officer, in which her responsibilities included managing fundraising campaigns, and developing and maintaining relationships with donors. At the time, Foodlink relied heavily on such funding sources as Wegmans Food Markets’ Check Out Hunger program, and on direct-mail campaigns. Though those efforts were effective, Tedesco set out to grow Foodlink’s development program, and boost its outreach to donors. 

“We didn’t know who our donors were,” she says. “Under my leadership, we began to dig in a little bit, and begin to build relationships directly with donors.”

At the same time, the nonprofit had not drawn public attention to its programs and mission.

“When people talked about Foodlink, they had no idea what Foodlink did,” she explains.

To deal with that problem, Tedesco found new ways to pitch Foodlink and its mission. The nonprofit began giving free, regular tours of its premises, publicizing its efforts to attack the root causes of hunger in the communities it serves, and in other ways drawing attention to its programs. Due in part to such initiatives, public financial support of Foodlink rose from $3.3 million in 2010 to $5.7 million in 2014—a 73 percent increase.

Pancreatic cancer took Ferraro in February 2014. 

“Tom left us unexpectedly and quickly, and it was a very sad thing to overcome for the organization,” Tedesco says. 

She was appointed co-executive director of Foodlink, and began taking steps to improve its management team. She has continued on that course in her current position, which she assumed in 2015.

“It was really important for me, in (Ferraro’s) absence, to build a collaborative leadership team,” she says. “I’ve made a number of hires on our senior leadership team of really highly skilled individuals.”

One of Tedesco’s aims was to bring in new people who were capable of researching and measuring the effectiveness of Foodlink’s programs. Meg Demment, the nonprofit’s chief impact officer, was one of the new hires. Demment had run into Tedesco while consulting for Foodlink, but her interview with the nonprofit’s CEO was much more revealing than those encounters.

“I saw a really honest and humble leader,” Demment explains. “I think she has a really unique ability to be compassionate and passionate at the same time about how food can be used for good.”

Before COVID-19, as many as 100 volunteers helped out at Foodlink each day. That’s dropped to no more than 40.

Collecting data

With Tedesco’s support, Demment created an organizational dashboard for Foodlink.

“(It’s) a way of collecting data across the whole organization and summarizing it in some way that is useful for individuals across the organization and the leadership team,” Demment says. “That’s something we review every quarter.”

Tedesco says the tool has been very useful.

“It has been incredibly effective in helping management use data to make decisions and communicate shared goals with one another,” she says.

Under Tedesco, Foodlink has grown or developed innovative programs that reach beyond its core mission of providing food for those in need, and attack the root causes of their hunger. She’s particularly proud of the Foodlink Career Fellowship program. Through that effort, those 18 years old or older who are living in poverty can learn the skills they need to pursue a career in culinary arts and services. 

“We’re really looking at building skills and economic mobility to transform lives, and using food as a tool to do it,” Tedesco explains. “There’s nothing like it anywhere else in the country.”

Enrollees undergo classroom instruction, on-the-job training in the Foodlink Community Kitchen and a three-month externship with Wegmans. Of the eight graduates in the program’s first class, all found jobs as culinary workers. The second class of seven students is hard at work, and Foodlink is already accepting applications for the third class.

Rising to meet a challenge

The coronavirus pandemic threw a unique set of problems at Foodlink.

“One of the biggest challenges of COVID-19 has been restructuring to make sure that our people stay safe, particularly in our Community Kitchen and our warehouse,” Tedesco says.

To reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 among its employees and customers, Foodlink altered or suspended its programs. The Curbside Market, a rolling farmers market that sold fresh produce at low cost throughout six counties, parked its trucks, and the nonprofit’s nutrition education programs ceased holding classes. At the same time, the organization quickly changed the way it operates. 

“We essentially needed to redeploy and redirect a lot of our personnel and resources to emergency services,” Tedesco says. 

Foodlink’s nine nutrition educators, for example, are sorting food or packing food boxes in its 90,000-square-foot warehouse, or preparing ready-to-go meals in its Community Kitchen. Employees who can work offsite are doing so. 

“If you think of someone like a prep cook at our Community Kitchen, that’s not work they can take home with them,” Tedesco explains.

Still, as many as 15 percent of the nonprofit’s employees are working offsite, depending on the day. The rest are given one to two days off each week with pay, and maintain strict safety measures and social distancing on the job. Before COVID-19, as many as 100 volunteers helped out at Foodlink each day. That’s dropped to no more than 40.

The Curbside Market, a rolling farmers market that sold fresh produce at low cost throughout six counties, parked its trucks to avoid the spread of COVID-19.

Foodlink has also had to deal with COVID-19’s effects on the soup kitchens, food pantries and other nonprofits it serves. Some of its customers, or “partners,” have been able to institute safety measures, change their service models and continue serving the needy. Others have had to reduce or suspend their operations.

In addition, unemployment has jumped throughout the region, driving up the demand for free and low-cost food. 

Foodlink’s evolution to meet that demand manifests in a number of ways. The organization continues to provide fresh produce to its partners, but it also has initiated drive-through food distribution.

“We’ve done 30,000 of those boxes this way,” Tedesco says. “We normally would have done about the same number of pounds through our network of agencies.”

Drive-through food dispensing doesn’t work for those without transportation or who can’t leave their homes. To serve them, the organization supplies food boxes to Lifespan of Greater Rochester, the Ibero-American Action League and Action for a Better Community. Those agencies then give the boxes to seniors and others who are unable to make it to Foodlink’s distribution points. 

Distribution to families with kids also has increased. Before COVID-19 struck, Foodlink provided about 3,500 meals a day to children in Rochester’s schools and after-school programs. Now, the nonprofit daily hands out about 5,000 fresh meals for children at 16 Rochester recreation centers and school campuses.

“It’s the ‘grab-and-go’ model,’” Tedesco says. “I’m proud to say we’ve done about 190,000 meals since March 16.”

A hefty price

These measures don’t come without price tags. Foodlink projects that COVID-19 will directly cost the nonprofit about $3.1 million by the time its fiscal year ends on June 30, Tedesco says. Atop that, Foodlink also has lost the revenue it would usually receive from Curbside Market sales, reimbursements for the meals it gives to schools and after-school programs, and payments for nutrition instruction and other services. 

The increase in operating costs and drop in revenue have been a challenge for Foodlink to absorb, but charitable donations have risen dramatically. Since COVID-19 hit, the organization has received $3.5 million in donations. At least $2.6 million of that total was specifically given to help it deal with the impact of COVID-19. 

“In the same timespan last year, we raised about $400,000,” Tedesco notes. 

Since mid-March, Wegmans and the United Way of Greater Rochester have pledged a total of $965,000 in emergency funds to Foodlink. While Tedesco welcomes the additional financial support, she’s uncertain whether it will continue over the long term.

“We expect our heightened response to this public health crisis and the recession that ensues to last a minimum of 18 months,” she says. “I think our community will continue to be generous, but I don’t think that this level of giving … would be sustained for that period of time.”

With that in mind, Foodlink is reserving funds for use over the long haul.

“We’re really trying to make sure (that) we are able to continue to meet the heightened need,” Tedesco says.

Foodlink’s coronavirus safety measures have taken a less-quantifiable toll on its employees.  

“Conditions that limit your ability to be near people, that put restrictions on you, have not just been a logistical challenge, it’s been a challenge for people’s morale,” Tedesco explains. “It drags a little bit on your spirit.”

While she insists that she’s “doing OK,” even Tedesco admits to feeling the stress brought on by the pandemic. 

“This week is the first time it hit me that the days are just running into one another,” she says. “It doesn’t really feel that there’s been a weekend in two months.”

On June 11, Monroe County was given the go-ahead to enter phase three of New York’s reopening plan, permitting offices, hair salons and other businesses to begin serving customers again. Tedesco says that won’t affect Foodlink’s operations, but she hopes to do a “soft reboot” of the Curbside Market program this month.

“We know that it’s needed now more than ever, … but the model is going to change,” she explains. “Maybe we have pre-boxed fruits and vegetables that we can hand to people.”

United Way president and CEO Jaime Saunders has known Tedesco for years. The two met when Tedesco turned to Saunders, another Maxwell School graduate, for assistance with networking before joining Foodlink. 

“I find her incredibly intelligent, entrepreneurial, very calm, and very committed,” Saunders says of her friend. 

She commends Tedesco for Foodlink’s response to COVID-19.

Julia Tedesco and Jaime Saunders, president and CEO of United Way.

“She has taken the foodbank, and all of its assets … and the power of food to change the community,” Saunders says.

Though Tedesco seems able to take on many challenges, things haven’t always gone completely smoothly for her at Foodlink. Take the time about eight years ago when she and Keller decided to reward their coworkers by making popcorn for them. They ended up setting the building’s fire alarm off. 

Keller sometimes trots out that story when Tedesco comes up with a new way to show her appreciation for Foodlink’s employees.

“I’ll joke, ‘At least the office won’t smell like burnt popcorn,’” Keller says. 

Mike Costanza is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer.

2 thoughts on “Leading Foodlink with a sure hand

  1. Julia,
    What a tremendous job you’ve done. You should be very proud of your accomplishments.

    It’s an honor to say I know you both through the Charlotte Community Association and the Community Food Cupboard Of Rochester.

    Carolyn and I say congratulation on a job well done.

    Joe Hinchman

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