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Diane Reeder & The Queen’s Galley: Feeding the hungry with grace and compassionby Jamaine Bell

Diane Reeder is no stranger to difficult times. In 2003, she suffered carbon monoxide exposure that left her unable to work for 18 months. With five children, she and her husband struggled financially, to the point that their family food budget was $25 every two weeks. A reasonable person would think that this would qualify them for food stamps, because, after all, their situation illustrated perfectly why the food stamp program was created. However, in applying for them, she found out that her husband’s income was eleven dollars over the income allowance cutoff. Let me repeat that: eleven dollars.

The fact that they did not qualify for aid from social services was bad enough, but they then discovered that most food pantries and soup kitchens were also closed to them. She explains, “When you show up to a federally funded food pantry, you need to show your EBT card, and if you don’t have that magic key, that card, there are a lot of doors that are closed to you. Some places will look the other way once or twice, but on a regular basis, they can’t. They risk losing their funding.”

So, struggling to keep food on the table, she and her family did not see fresh fruit or vegetables for 18 months. “When you don’t have the money, those are the last things you’re going to be buying because they are the most expensive,” she tells me, “which is unfortunate because they are the most healthy.”

Finally, she found that they qualified for the Women, Infants, and Children supplemental food program (WIC). This program gives food vouchers to pregnant or nursing women and families with small children. The income allowance was higher and they qualified. Also, with this program, came vouchers to the local farmer’s market—an addition that was added to the program with the 2002 Farm Bill. This allowed Diane to buy fresh produce for her family at last, and she was ecstatic. A fellow WIC recipient that she ran into at the farmer’s market, however, was less than thrilled with the vouchers. Diane discovered the reason: her friend did not know how to cook any vegetable except potatoes. Diane couldn’t believe it. How could someone not know how to cook—especially someone with a very limited food budget?

Diane took the other woman through the farmer’s market. They let the children pick out all the vegetables with their vouchers, and with some pasta the other woman had received from a local food pantry, and some garlic and olive oil that Diane had, they went to the woman’s house and Diane showed her how to cook a great meal that they all shared. The next week, the woman showed up at the farmer’s market again, and they created another meal together. The week after that, the woman brought a friend, and the next week, another. Finally, after a while, Diane contacted a friend who was president of the board of Trinity Church in Kingston and was given permission to use the kitchen in the church basement. Diane assumed the role of a culinary instructor to low-income families who needed help in learning to prepare healthy low-cost meals.

After doing this for a while, her husband suggested that she apply for 501(c) charitable status so that she could solicit donations to help out. “It hadn’t occurred to me that what I was doing was doing was charitable. It was just fun. It was also a way to stretch our food dollars, because by pooling our resources, we would all bring something and cook together.” This was the beginning of what would become the Queen’s Galley.

Diane explains the name—her husband owns a company in Kingston called Knightly Endeavors. She wanted to thank him in some way for never complaining about her activities, and for never saying “no” or telling her she was crazy for doing what she was doing. She thought about giving it a medieval name, and she imagined that if she lived in that time, one of the best jobs would be in the Queen’s kitchen, because she would always have leftovers to feed her family and friends.

After she received her non-profit status, she began asking for donations and started teaching more classes in more church kitchens. She enjoyed it, but the dragging of materials and ingredients to and from the kitchens was difficult as she was still recovering from her disability and wasn’t driving. So, in 2005, she inquired about a building that was for sale in uptown Kingston, on Washington Avenue. It was a transitional housing facility for adults with an indicator for potential homelessness. The owners liked what she was doing and suggested that they work together somehow. She helped out in the office and they let her use the kitchen during the off times, and it evolved from there. After a while, she started doing all the food service at the facility. As she explains, “My mother is Italian, my father is Irish-Catholic, and I was raised by a Jewish stepmother. I have no choice but to feed everybody around me—it’s kind of a DNA thing.”

At first, she and her staff of volunteers fed the residents of the home. She found that she often had leftover food, so she started giving it away. She decided that if she was going to give food away, she should give it to anyone who wanted it. To her, the most important thing was that there be no questions asked of anyone who wanted a meal—no card that needed to be shown, no proof of income. If someone showed up wanting a meal, they would be allowed to have one. Her only requirement is that the person be clean and sober, and respectful of the staff and fellow diners.

In 2007, the Queen’s Galley was serving about 1,200 meals a month. This past August, they served 10,352 meals. And Diane will tell you that they are seeing people now come in to eat that you would not expect to see in a soup kitchen. The recession has hit hard, and donations from their recent “Rally for the Galley” radio fund drive on WPBM are half of what they usually raise, though interestingly, they had twice as many donors this year.

The Queen’s Galley does not receive any money from the government—federal, state, or local. Diane and her staff operate only on donations from individuals and local companies. She has received grants from ConAgra Foods and Share Our Strength, and also receives support and food from local farms and restaurants and catering companies. But with donations down drastically at a time when need is at its highest, Diane is wondering about the winter, “We don’t have a regular revenue generator. We’ve made this commitment and told everybody that we’ll feed you no matter what, and we have all these people coming in.”

The Queen’s Galley very graciously accepts donations of cash, gift certificates to grocery stores, food (fresh and canned—the less processed the better), and volunteers. Of the latter, Diane will take anyone at anytime. “This place is old. There is always something that needs fixing, or cleaning.” Volunteers can help in the kitchen, or serving, or even calling donors on the phone. “Even if you have one hour a year, we’ll take it.”

She has also launched a program with area restaurants called “Dine One, Share One”. So far, four local restaurants—36 Main in New Paltz, the Postage Inn in Rosendale, and Angela’s Pizzeria and Ship to Shore in Kingston, all have a special “Queen’s Galley” meal, of which a percentage of the sale goes to the Queen’s Galley. Diane hopes to sign more restaurants up for the program.

Other fundraisers for the kitchen include the Hudson Valley Mayfair in the spring and the Hunger Banquet, which will be held again next March. Mostly an awareness-raising event, the Hunger Banquet did help raise funds this past year with the participating restaurants donating 5% of their gross sales for the day.

Though Diane sees a difficult winter ahead, she feels that the community will support the Queen’s Galley’s mission. She believes that every community should have a place where hungry people can have a healthy meal without questioning their eligibility for services. Having been on both sides of the issue, both as a recipient of aid and as a helper to those in need, Diane understands that circumstances can be complicated and tough. And with the economy increasing the need, the community’s response is even more important. But Diane remains optimistic, even in the face of what looks to be a daunting challenge. With a warm smile she tells me, “Our community has never let us down before.”

The Queen’s Galley is located at 254 Washington Ave., Kingston. Visit the website at www.queensgalley.org, or call 845.338.3468 for more information.



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