It wouldn’t be out of line to say that the fate of the Bridgeport Food Pantry rests on the back of a plastic duck — or a whole creek full of them.
The pantry will hold its annual “Don’t Duck Hunger” duck race fundraiser at 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 8 in the parking lot of St. Francis Parish in Bridgeport. The race typically raises somewhere in the range of $25,000 for the pantry.
“We were very successful last year. We raised $25,000. Every year, we’ve gone up $5,000, so you know what I’m going for this year,” said Patti Hedrick, coordinator of the food pantry. “I don’t know what we’re going to do if this isn’t successful. We’re required by federal mandate to give them so much protein, a fruit and a vegetable. It’s not like they can come in and we just give them some crackers and a roll of toilet paper. They have to get the requirements. We can’t cut down.”
The food pantry, which is affiliated with the Food Bank of Central New York, serves between 150 and 165 families a month in the towns of Cicero, Manlius and Sullivan. That number spikes to near 300 around Thanksgiving and Christmas. Since July of 2011, the pantry has provided 72,230 meals, an increase of 24 percent since July 2009.
The pantry has an Election Day spaghetti dinner fundraiser as well as a corned beef and cabbage dinner on St. Patrick’s Day, but they needed a large fundraiser to fill their coffers. That’s when Hedrick came up with the idea to race plastic ducks in Chittenango Creek, located right behind the church. People “adopt” a duck, then set it loose in the creek. The owner of the duck that crosses the finish line first wins a prize, and all proceeds go to the pantry.
The race is the major fundraiser for the pantry, helping to meet its annual budget of $65,000. Hedrick said the pantry overshot that budget last year by $2,000.
“Last year we paid out $67,000 to the Food Bank of Central New York. Heaven knows what it’s going to be this year,” she said. “Every month, I’m registering eight to 10 new families. It’s really straining our budget. It’s horrible. It’s unbelievable. How can we keep doing this? I used to get one or two. Now it’s eight to 10 every single month. It’s really a stretch.”
Why are so many families struggling? The reason is simple: the economy.
“Most families, more than three-quarters of them work, but they just don’t make enough money,” Hedrick said. “The jobs they have are low-income. They don’t make enough to pay for health care and their homes and food. It’s just not enough. So they come to us for food.”
Fortunately, the food pantry can save some money by purchasing food in bulk from the Food Bank of Central New York, according to Carol Benedict, who also works with the food pantry.
“We can buy better than the average consumer,” Benedict said. “We get a better deal when we buy through the Food Bank of Central New York. Because we’re affiliated with them, we can get things like USDA surplus meat and dairy products, which is huge. For every one person that comes in, we get $15 in USDA surplus food. By the time we follow the federal guidelines, that $40 in groceries, plus other stuff. That’s a wonderful thing. That’s what turns us into an important community service.”
Benedict said one of the reasons the Bridgeport Food Pantry is growing is because the Food Bank is referring families to them.
“They send people to us because they know we have food here,” she said.
Benedict said that’s why large fundraisers like the duck race are so important; they allow the food pantry to purchase the food necessary to service the 400 families it serves annually.
Hedrick came up with the idea for a duck race in 2009 after hearing about a similar event in a Baldwinsville. She approached the community leaders and, with their support, agreed to take on the bulk of the responsibility for fundraising herself.
“I call myself the Bridgeport Beggar,” she said. “I just pound the pavement every year and go out there and ask for donations, and people are always more than willing to give them.”
In fact, the fundraiser has been so successful that the Food Bank of Central New York has asked Hedrick for advice.
“I spoke at the Food Bank’s seminar last year, because they asked me to speak about fundraising, and when I said how much we raised, you could hear the gasp. ‘How did you do that?’” Hedrick recalled. “Well, it’s a lot of work, but it’s also the community — the business people and everyone in town putting in. There’s a guy works out of town who’s here for summer, and every week he buys $100 worth of ducks. You can’t replace these people.”
Hedrick also credited the many workers who help with the race itself, particularly her own husband and those that do the physical labor in the creek the day of the race.
“We have wonderful workers,” she said. “My husband has control of the guys that go in the creek and do the physical part of it. Thank God for him. They all work very hard.”
But it’s Hedrick who heads up the effort; Benedict called her “the driving force” behind the duck race. Hedrick said she just couldn’t stand the thought of anyone going hungry.
“I don’t go hungry. I have a big family and none of them are hungry. I can’t imagine little children going hungry,” she said. “If you leave this life and you haven’t put anything into it it’s a shame. Don’t you feel like you have to give back for what you have?”
The games preceding the duck race begin at 2 p.m. in the parking lot behind St. Francis of Assisi Church in Bridgeport. The race itself kicks off at 3 p.m. in Chittenango Creek. It costs $5 to “adopt” a plastic duck. That $5 will feed a family of four for a day. Twenty dollars — which buys a “six quack” (adopt four ducks, get two free) — will feed that same family for five days. And $100, which buys a “box of quackers,” or 35 ducks, will feed that same family for a month.
Why would you buy 35 ducks? Because the more ducks you have in the water, the better chance you have of your duck winning the race. If your duck is the first to cross the finish line, you win the grand prize of $1,000. Second prize is $500, third is $250, fourth is $250 and many more are on the line.
In addition, this year will feature a pizza contest.
“We’ve got two establishments that are going to donate pizza,” Hedrick said. “They’ll have good-sized pieces that we’ll be selling for a dollar, and we’ll have chips. It’s just a new venture we’re doing in addition to the duck race to make things more interesting.”
For more information or to adopt a duck — or 35 — call Hedrick at 699-7976.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.