"If someone is hungry enough and humble enough to walk over the threshold into a soup kitchen they should be fed real food on a real plate and permitted to dine with dignity. No questions asked."
-- Diane Reeder, Founder and Executive Director of The Queens Galley.
Founder and Executive Director of the Queens Galley (QG) in Kingston, Diane Reeder, feels that access to wholesome food is a right and should be available to every man, woman and child… "Just as the air we breathe," she added.
A former Long Islander, Reeder came up to the Hudson Valley to attend the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and luckily for communities from Westchester to Albany, she decided to stay to form the QG in 2006 that has since served 452,752 meals as of July 15, 2012.
So how did this incredible community resource come to be?
Reeder explained the idea was born out of frustration as she was recovering from work-related disability leaving her unable to walk, read or write. Not being able to work or care for her children and living on a food stamp allowance of $50 a month for a family of five—she went through over a year without fresh fruits and vegetables. She also realized that the systems in place don't always work for those who need it.
When Reeder hit rock-bottom with no food in the house she realized one sometimes has to swallow their pride and ask for help. Reeder said, in her opinion, the system "humiliates before they help."
Said Reeder, "We had to prove that we were poor enough to be worthy of assistance and any assistance that we did get would come in such limited and restricted ways. We had used the food pantries (limited to once per month for many of them) and out of desperation the only thing I could come up with was the most humbling experiences in my life."
Those drastic humbling experiences included something she's not proud of—attending the funeral of a town firefighter as she realized food would be served after the service and, ultimately, this man would actually be her savior for the day because her children would have sustenance. She was that desperate.
"I was sickened by the experience, so ashamed to have basically stolen from a dead man," she said adding this scenario created anger and resentment towards a system that was supposed to help people and that help, when received , came with a price of emotional hurt and a feeling of disgrace.
She found out about WIC, the supplemental nutrition program for women, and was eligible with a one year old daughter.
"The WIC foods were limited in quantity and type, but extremely helpful. Because I was nursing Olivia, we qualified for the extra protein in the form of peanut butter, tuna and beans. WIC also allocated milk. A LOT of milk. More than enough to drink and use on cereal," she said explaining that she used her ingenuity to make small amounts of ricotta cheese from the extra milk.
Subsequently WIC started the WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program (WIC FMNP) with coupons she could use at the Farmers' Market for produce. Having gone without fresh fruit or a crisp green salad for a year-and-a half she said, "I felt like a kid let loose in FAO Schwartz with grandma's credit card."
She met another WIC mom who was despondent as the only veggie she knew how to cook was a potato. Reeder, being a CIA alumnus gave her a tour of the market explaining how to cook different produce items. But, truth be told, Reeder realized this woman would not understand a quick cooking lesson and decided to invite her newfound friend for some lessons at the Reeder home.
And she did this week after week. Soon her friend brought more friends.
"We all pitched in a little something; eating better and as they were learning I was feeling better in a new found physical therapy of teaching."
And each week, Reeder said, as she grew stronger, her friends became better cooks. Eventually her husband suggested finding a neutral place to continue these cooking lessons and her friend suggested the Trinity Lutheran Church kitchen. Thanks to the church's generosity, classes took on a life of their own and Reeder's husband Jay suggested looking into a 501(c)3 status.
Not having an organization name to put on the non-profit IRS 1023 application—she realized she'd have to come up with one.
"I knew the name should reflect a way to say 'thank you' my husband for being so kind and patient. Jay owns a renaissance-era garment company called Knightly Endeavors. So I thought… if I was a galley wench working in the kitchen of royalty, such as a Queen, there would always be scraps and leftovers around and we would never go hungry," she said adding, "And there you go—The Queens Galley got its name."
So from a cooking group, which Reeder had no intention of growing to the size and importance it's experienced— she and groups of volunteers have served almost a half-million nutritional meals to people in need.
QG's present location on Kingston's Washington Avenue is a perfect fit. It offers bus, bike and walking travel access—however Reeder has recently been told they must find a new location. "A few months ago the landlord gave us notice that they would not be renewing our lease for the shelter," she said.
Since that time a potential buyer's plan to turn the building into a high end assisted care facility has fallen through and Reeder has asked the Galley's attorney to make an offer to buy the QG location.
"Currently the rental of this space is $8750 a month. If we had a mortgage for upwards of $700,000 our monthly payment would be half that amount," said Reeder.
A few offers for new locations have been in the works—some are viable with a bit of creativity and some not appropriate at all, Reeder explained. She said that Ulster County and Jennifer Fuentes at Kingston City Hall really understand the Galley's needs and are helping to find a new home for the organization. However, with no exact time-frame to vacate at the present time, The Queens Galley will remain at its Kingston "home" with myriad volunteers and food and service donations to continue to be a champion of community generosity. But they're not sure for how long.
Although Reeder works a solid 75 hours work week, either physically on-site at QG or on-site at a QG program – she also works another 35 hours after hours deep in digital communications. But declares, "I'm so grateful be doing what I'm doing."
A typical day for Reeder includes checking available donations and what's needed to get through the week. Then there are the phone calls, emails, scheduling of speeches and panel discussions, meeting with the bookkeeper and board members, talking to reporters, reviewing catering requests, doing a nutritional analyses of the following week's menu; making any needed changes. While those duties are being tended to, Reeder may have meetings with attorneys about the building, program managers, staff meetings, and tending to what may have broken down in the building overnight.
Just reading her duties is enough to make a person tired!
But she humbly articulates that it's not all about her and notes QG has help from myriad selfless people and other food-based organizations.
"No one organization can solve food insecurity. We must work together to provide the best possible access, to better distribute, to better provide for our entire community."
She gives much praise to the YMCA, People's Place, Kingston Land Trust, Cornell Cooperative, Family of Woodstock and the school system, which often provides food for low income children.
And she said, "If we gave out engraved awards they'd certainly go to Mike Berg of Family of Woodstock, the Bruderhoff and honestly Paul Alley of Pestmaster of the Hudson Valley – they donate thousands of dollars of services to us."
Besides meals, QG also offers five different programs: "Cooking Matters," a hands-on culinary nutrition education series teaching preparation of affordable healthy foods on a limited budget (this was the initial program offered by the Galley when they partnered with "Share Our Strength" to provide curricula and training for volunteers.)
The second program is "The Soup Kitchen" that serves chef-prepared restaurant-style plated meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner every day of the year—with no questions of income required or asked about.
The third program is the "Food Pantry" giving access to wholesome foods for households to cook at home; this program works in tandem with "Cooking Matters, an off-premises workshop. "Hudson Valley Second Harvest" is the fourth program –educating and advocating for food rescue connecting food producers and food service operators to acquire nutritional foods to be donated to feed those that need it.
And lastly, the fifth program is "Job Readiness" that teaches youths and displaced older workers the basic skills need to either enter the food service industry as a career or to enter a culinary degree program. Reeder explained that this program connects people to jobs in the industry and creates a new gold standard for pre-admission experience for the CIA.
If you think that QG services stop there you're wrong as they also get the youths of the community involved with learning how to help their fellow man.
Said Reeder, "The DIG Kids at the Hodge Center through Kingston Cares run by Megan Weiss through the Family of Woodstock (profiled in VisitVortex's Spring Issue) is another way we involve the community."
DIG Kids shows youths how to grow food, learn farming practices, encourage starting their own businesses, make something beautiful to be proud of, and reap the benefits of eating well and staying healthy. Reeder said that they also partner with the South Pine Street City Farm project which has a small community garden that provides produce for our meals at QG.
With so many community businesses participating, Reeder wants to give thanks to the following for contributing foods and services that donate extremely critical and valuable services to help keep us going: Rondout Valley Growers Association, Panera, Omega Institute, Diamond Mills, Hillside Manor, Twin Lakes, Hickory Smokehouse, Northwind Farm, Fleishers Meats, Elia's Sausage, The Gunk Haus, Tenbrouck Commons, Mohonk Mountain House, Bread Alone, Shoprite, and Jane's Ice Cream.
However, what Reeder feels is most important for the community to know is that: "If someone is hungry enough and humble enough to walk over the threshold into a soup kitchen they should be fed real food on a real plate and permitted to dine with dignity. No questions asked."
She added that no proof of poverty is required—in fact, Reeder said, "We accept ZERO government funding as that would require proof of poverty and having walked a mile in those moccasins I know what it feels like to be humble enough and hungry enough to ask for food. If someone is hungry we should feed them."
The Queens Galley has expanded their daily meal hours with breakfasts served between 7:30-9a.m.; Lunch from 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.; and dinner served between 4:30-6 p.m. The Galley is funded by donation and support of the community residents and businesses.
The facility is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to accept food donations; 254 Washington Avenue, Kingston; for more information call 845-338-3468 or visit the Website at thequeensgalley.org to learn more and see their "wish list" of needed items.