Willow Roots Feeds Those in Need in the Hudson Valley

Willow Roots started by feeding one Pine Plains resident. Today, the food pantry serves nearly 800. But it’s the community spirit of this nonprofit that makes it so special.

It all began with a veteran named Bruce Silvernail. When Lisa Zayas, of Pine Plains, heard that he’d lost his benefits in 2019 and had no stove, she started bringing meals to him. When he told her he was sharing the food with another man, Lisa began cooking for both of them. Soon she was feeding a handful of residents several times a week.

At the same time, Lisa, a home caregiver, and her husband Nelson, a K–5 enrichment teacher at the Pine Plains Central School District, were trying to do something about local food waste. The couple talked to the farmers at nearby Sky High Farm and Black Sheep Hill Farm about donating their imperfect produce to them so they could continue providing meals to those in need. The Zayas’ put out these fruits and veggies on their porch with a “for free” sign. Soon word got out and people from the area were stopping by the porch for produce. Occasionally, folks would donate a few dollars for the food they took. With that money, the Zayases bought canned goods that they also gave away.

Willow Roots founders
Willow Roots founders Lisa and Nelson Zayas.

Soon, though, the porch proved too small for the number of folks stopping by. So the couple formed Willow Roots in 2019, and operated the food pantry from their garage. “I’ve always been a spiritual person,” says Lisa, “and always believed in giving back and protecting the Earth and humanity.”

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“Once people started hearing about what we were doing, we were getting checks for a couple of hundred dollars [without asking],” adds Lisa. More donations meant more canned goods and even meat to give away at the food pantry. But the extra cash still couldn’t keep up with the demand for food.

One day while shopping at Aldi in Kingston, the couple spent the last $600 they had in their pantry Paypal checking account. “I told Nelson, ‘This is not sustainable. I don’t how we’re going to do this,’” recalls Lisa. But within 24 hours, several people had sent donations—a total of $2,600—to the account.

“I knew at that moment that we were going to be OK. No matter what we spent, it always seemed to replenish,” she says. That was true even when the pandemic hit. With help from a local electric company that had an unused building on Main Street in Pine Plains, the couple was able to buy the larger space and move the food pantry there. All these fortunate events have led Lisa to believe, as she puts it, “The universe loves Willow Roots.”

A Thriving Pantry

Today, the nonprofit continues to partner with area farms as well as stores like Stewart’s and Aldi. Now that it has been officially certified as a food pantry, Willow Roots feeds roughly 50–70 families who live in the Pine Plains school district each month.

What makes it different from many pantries is the quality of the offerings and the way people can “shop” for what they want, says Lisa. The pantry is divided into sections: Toiletries and cleaning supplies; frozen foods and meats; canned and boxed goods; and fresh produce and drinks. The items change depending on what’s been donated and what’s in season. Sometimes it’s organic steak, sausages, and hummus; other times it’s tofu, trout, and swordfish.

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Willow Roots also delivers boxes of food and prepared meals to people who can’t get to the pantry due to age or disabilities. The prepared foods can come from churches or local residents who give away catered leftovers from weddings or large parties—or, once, surplus barbecue from the Pine Plains fire department’s fundraiser.

Willow roots bus
At right, the bus that transports donated goods.

But the pantry and food deliveries aren’t the only ways Willow Roots gives back to the community. At the suggestion of one of the volunteers, the organization added a thrift store where people can get donated clothes for free. There’s also a neighbor networking program run from a Facebook page where locals can give away the washing machine they’ve just replaced or a mattress they no longer need. Plus, they’ve partnered with Pine Plains High School so students can volunteer and earn community service hours.

There’s even a virtual store on the Willow Roots website (willowroots.org/store). This year, Lisa wants to help out the artists who come to the pantry and don’t have time to sell their quilts, beaded jewelry, paintings and other artwork. Right now there are eight vendors. Ten percent of the money goes to the food pantry and the sellers keep the other 90 percent.

Volunteers Who Care

To keep all these different parts running, Willow Roots relies on a team of about 40 volunteers. “The volunteers we have are second to none. These people give up days for us. They’ll come in and help me restock. And moving 5,000 pounds of food is not easy,” notes Lisa. “One volunteer told me, ‘I don’t go to church. So this is my way of communing with the universe and doing good.’”

NYC resident Victoria Baluk is one of these volunteers. She started lending a hand at Willow Roots during the first six months of the pandemic, when she relocated to her family’s weekend home in Gallatin. “I was looking for something to do in the community because suddenly I wasn’t [just] a weekend person. I had more time to be here. So I wanted to become a bigger part of it in some way,” recalls Baluk.

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Food pantry volunteers

The experience was so wonderful that Baluk is now a member of the Willow Roots board. When she’s not in the Hudson Valley, she drives up from Brooklyn just to help at the pantry on the two Saturdays a month it’s open. “The way the pantry runs is very respectful to those whom I call customers,” explains Baluk. Instead of collecting prepacked boxes of food, people can select the items they want. “Willow Roots is a magical place because they continue to maintain a system that allows people to make choices for themselves,” she adds.

Plus, everyone at Willow Roots has created a relationship with the people who come to the pantry. “We get excited if we have something that we know someone wants,” says Baluk, whether it’s hot dogs or salmon. “So it’s not just a community in the sense of the people who volunteer, but the community extends into the people that come. It’s a wonderful feeling and thing to be a part of.”

Lisa refers to the people who come to the pantry as family members. “We know their lives; we know their stories,” she explains. The woman who greets residents at the pantry door is also a social worker for Northern Dutchess Hospital in Rhinebeck. “She checks in with everyone every time they come, asking questions like, ‘ What’s going on? Have things changed? Are you OK?’ She has obtained medical help and insurance for people that they didn’t know they could have it. She’s a blessing on that frontline,” says Lisa.

“Willow Roots has been a godsend for the residents here,” says Laura Dennis, 85, who’s been receiving food deliveries for the past two years. “But of course, the Zayases have always done [a lot] for the town. Everyone is so thankful for them.” Lisa says the nonprofit isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. “Nelson and I have talked about it, and we really want Willow Roots to be here long after we’re gone.”

Related: Volunteering in the Hudson Valley: Where to Lend a Hand

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