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It Takes a Hamlet

Catskills restaurant owners launched a program teaching kids about nutrition. In the wake of COVID-19, now they’re feeding them—and their needy families.

Mark Sullivan
May 05, 2020
Courtesy Foster Supply Hospitality Co.
Courtesy Foster Supply Hospitality Co.
Courtesy Foster Supply Hospitality Co.
Courtesy Foster Supply Hospitality Co.

Classes may be closed, but an almost empty school bus still makes its morning rounds in the hamlet of Livingston Manor, New York. The driver gently taps the horn as he pulls up to a house, then his only passenger grabs one of the neatly folded brown paper bags stacked in the seats behind and deposits it on a front porch.

The scene is repeated at more than 40 homes in the area. Inside the bag are carefully packed meals for a family of five sealed with a sticker reading “prepared with love.” All told, 2,000 meals a week go out to families struggling to make ends meet.

Livingston Manor Central School, a Georgian-style landmark that seems too big for this community of 1,200 people, offered to deliver free breakfast and lunch to all of its 473 students during the COVID-19 pandemic, after schools across the county were ordered closed on March 15. But administrators realized that if some students were missing meals, so were their families.

“We were sending what we call ‘snack packs’ home to five of our neediest families on the weekends,” said guidance counselor Christian Towsley. “Peanut butter and jelly, that kind of thing. But we were always scrambling to find food.”

Sims Foster and Kirsten Harlow Foster, owners of seven restaurants that have done a lot to revitalize this corner of the Catskills—two are stand-alone properties, five are housed in the upscale inns that they also operate—had something similar in mind.

“We began talking about food insecurity issues in our county,” said Kirsten. “For many kids, the only reliable meals they get are at school. We were wondering what happens to them when they don’t go to school, when they don’t get those meals. And then we started wondering about their families.”

Sims Foster and Kirsten Harlow Foster
Sims Foster and Kirsten Harlow FosterCourtesy Foster Supply Hospitality Co.

The Fosters had 120 employees whom they were committed to keeping on their payroll, despite the fact that all lodgings had been closed by the state and the restaurants were limited to takeout orders. What if some of the underutilized kitchen staff could make meals for needy families? School officials jumped at the chance.

“It was a godsend,” said Towsley. “It was a kindness they did both for their employees and for our school. Instead of five families, we can now provide meals for more than 40—three times a week.”

The Fosters opened up the commercial kitchen at Kenoza Hall, a new hotel that was slated to open in the spring but for the time being has been put on hold, and put people to work cooking meals. A team of six people now works five to six days a week preparing meals for Livingston Manor and several other nearby communities in Sullivan County.

Towsley says he doesn’t have to look far to see the impact of the program. One of the women who helps package the meals at the school is also a recipient: “The food has been a great help in these difficult times,” said Rhonda. “After assisting with feeding almost 300 students, it is nice to have a great meal waiting for me when I get home.”

The kitchen is now at capacity, but if other communities come knocking they won’t turn them away. The Fosters say that with 48 hours’ notice they can open another kitchen.

“It’s an enormous undertaking,” said Sims. “But I couldn’t be more proud of having a team that knows how to run a professional kitchen and know how to scale.”

The program is an extension of A Single Bite, a nonprofit the Fosters started as an in-school program teaching eighth graders at Livingston Manor Central School, where Sims graduated in 1994. Students learn the difference between real foods and processed foods by sampling at least a forkful of four to six dishes prepared by a chef from one of the Foster Supply Hospitality restaurants. It culminates with a meal at a celebrity chef’s restaurant in New York City (Sims worked in the hospitality industry there and apparently made some amazing connections).

The program quickly expanded to several other nearby school districts, and by early 2021 was slated to be offered to every eighth grader in Sullivan County. Sims says his employees considered it a team effort.

“Everybody in the company loves this program,” said Sims. “They all want to be involved in it. They were really the ones driving us to expand.”

In the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, Sullivan County was the heart of the Borscht Belt, boasting 538 hotels with names that evoke a glamorous era, including the Nevele, Kutsher’s, and Grossinger’s. (The latter was the last to disappear completely, falling to the wrecking ball in 2018.) Many of the area’s 10,000 bungalow colonies also closed, but some have more recently been revived as Hasidic summer camps.

Although Livingston Manor doesn’t have the county’s most visible Jewish community—nearby towns like Loch Sheldrake and Woodbourne are home to kosher bakeries and pizza parlors with signs in Yiddish—it is home to its architectural gem: Agudas Achim Synagogue, built in 1926 as an Orthodox shul and now home to a thriving Reform congregation.

Sims Foster grew up in Livingston Manor in an interfaith family, shuttling back and forth between Hebrew school at the synagogue and Sunday school at the Livingston Manor Presbyterian Church across the street. (“The food was better at the synagogue,” he joked.) He says his late father, Barry Foster, a longtime member of the synagogue, inspired him to work with kids.

“His belief was that you can change the trajectory of a young person’s life,” says Sims Foster. “He had an endless belief in what you can achieve when you educate kids.”

Growing up in Westchester County, Kirsten says her father was a big influence in her life as well. Passover was always his favorite holiday, and this year it seemed important to celebrate it for the first time with Sims and their own family, including 5-year-old Max and 3-year-old Bobbie Rose. Kirsten made a brisket recipe she remembers being made by her grandmother, who grew up on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.

“Passover is all about the importance of taking care of neighbors and doing something for those who are less fortunate,” she said. “That message rung very true this year.”

Although Sullivan County is 100 miles from New York City, it isn’t completely removed from the pandemic. It logged its first confirmed case on March 16, two weeks after the first in New York. With just 77,000 people, the county has now recorded some 955 cases and 23 deaths.

Another big-city problem Sims points out the community is not immune to: hunger. “You hear about it more in an urban environment, but it’s a real issue here as well,” he said. “Thank God a lot of people are recognizing that it’s an acute problem here.”

Mark Sullivan is a freelance writer and editor.