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As food insecurity increases during the pandemic, agencies work to reach people in need

Published January 23, 2021
By Claire Bessette and Kimberly Drelich k.drelich@theday.com | KimberlyDrelich

New London — At the walk-up food distribution site at St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Church on Huntington Street, recipients on Friday collected prepackaged bags of canned goods and pasta, a 5 pound bag of potatoes, two bags of apples, a bag containing three or four pounds of frozen ground turkey, along with two or three bottles of juice and a half-gallon of milk.

“I haven’t used a food pantry in 15 years,” said Kasey Belair of Waterford. “I’m grateful for everything.”

Belair, whose hours were cut at Mohegan Sun Casino, said her husband is retired and her mother is disabled. Much of the food she received will be for her mother. Belair said she was surprised at the quality of the food in the distribution, especially the frozen ground turkey.

The weekly Connecticut Food Bank/Foodshare food distribution has run for the past three Fridays in New London, with nearly 300 people per week carrying boxes or tote bags or pulling carts to the walk-up site.

According to Connecticut Food Bank, food insecurity in the state is estimated to have increased by 28% due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Research by Feeding America estimates 545,000 people, including 164,000 children, in the state are struggling with food insecurity. In New London County, the number of people facing food shortages has increased by 36% during the pandemic, and the number of children jumped by 49%.

Agencies are working to meet the increased need for food and other services, while also shifting to new means of distribution and COVID-19 safety protocols. 

At Groton Human Services, office assistant Megan Freeman said the phone is ringing with people calling for help with food, household items and pet food, as well as other services, such as assistance with rent.

“The need remains constant as many residents are still encountering reductions in work hours or have been laid off due to the effects of the pandemic and are having trouble keeping up with monthly bills including rent and utilities, in particular,” Director Marge Fondulas said. She said needs have at least doubled during the pandemic. Many clients the department is helping had not used the services before the pandemic, but now find themselves in need.

While the Human Services building is closed to the public, social workers are taking applications for assistance over the phone, and clients email documentation or place it in the drop box outside of the building, Fondulas said. Staff members are pitching in to carry and sort food and put together food bags, since for the most part volunteers are not coming to the building due to safety protocols. The agency is giving out food from the Groton Food Locker to Groton residents in need, by appointment, she said.

“We remain impressed with the generosity of local residents who consistently provide food and monetary donations,” Fondulas said, explaining that the agency relies on grants and donations to maintain such assistance. Donors have used their stimulus payment to purchase food for the food locker or to donate funds to the food locker or the department’s Donations Trust Fund, which often is used to help clients with rent. The department also received grants from the United Way and Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut.

Groton Human Services is averaging nearly 100 individual distributions of food from the food locker to households per month now, compared to about 35 before the pandemic, Financial Assistant Heidi McSwain said. 

Lisa Carney, social worker with the department, said the food locker is available by appointment every two weeks — and a lot of people are coming every two weeks — to pick up food. People also have been receiving items such as toiletries and cleaning supplies donated by the Groton Elks Club, she said.  

Additionally, Stephen Pulaski, a licensed clinical social worker and youth counselor, is continuing to provide counseling through in-person appointments with safety protocols, or remote appointments. He has helped his younger clients, who may be frustrated with technology during remote learning, and teenagers, who may feel disconnected from their social group, to express their feelings and find ways to cope. 

Norwich Human Services does not run a traditional food pantry but offers grocery store gift cards to needy residents. Director Lee-Ann Gomes said demand for assistance has skyrocketed, as sources for food have diminished during the pandemic. 

Prior to last March, the agency distributed about $100 a week in grocery gift cards and referred residents to the St. Vincent de Paul Place for daily hot meals and to Lee Memorial United Methodist Church on Washington Street for monthly community meals. Both have shifted to takeout meals during the pandemic, which might be more difficult for some families, Gomes said.

Norwich Human Services has been expanding its food gift card program through donations. Since March, it has received more than $5,000 — including $4,400 in a handbag sale fundraiser led by city Director of Planning Deanna Rhodes and Alderwoman Stacy Gould — in donations for grocery gift cards. Gomes said an anonymous donor gave $600, and another donated the recent $600 federal stimulus check.

She said all the donated money goes toward food, as families cut their food budgets to pay rent, utilities, car bills and now internet connection fees. The agency is using federal Community Development Block Grants to help people with rent and utilities.

Gomes said she learned of one struggling family through school officials who visited the home to check on the children’s attendance and quickly learned the mother had no food. Gomes went to the house with a grocery gift card and tickets for the commuter bus to allow her to go to the store.

The $4,400 from the handbag fundraiser is gone, Gomes said. She has instructed her staff to get the $25, $50 and $100 grocery gift cards into families’ hands as quickly as possible. 

Dina Sears-Graves, vice president of community impact at Gemma E. Moran United Way/ Labor Food Bank in New London, saw the need for boosted food assistance. Hundreds of people, many who had just been furloughed or laid off from jobs at the start of the pandemic, swarmed a drive-up, walk-up mobile food distribution event March 25 in New London at the start of the pandemic.

Sears-Graves said normally, the Gemma Moran center — which supplies food to dozens of food pantries and social services agencies throughout the region — relies on numerous winter food drives to restock its shelves after the holidays. But this year, with many people working from home and churches and civic groups with limited activities, food drives have dropped sharply. 

United Way now is running a virtual food drive at its website, www.uwsect.org, in which donors can choose either to donate a full grocery bag or specific items.

Sears-Graves said the federal Farmers to Families food box distribution program has been helping to fill gaps. Since October, the United Way coordinated the distribution of more than 23,000 boxes to New London County residents, each box containing 5 pounds of meat, 5 pounds of produce and 5 pounds of dairy products. “The boxes have taken a lot of strain off our food services," she said. “We’re really fortunate to have those boxes. It balances out our supplies.”

United Way is awaiting details of a coming fourth round of Farmers to Families food box distribution in early February and is partnering with housing authorities and housing complexes to help distribute the food boxes to residents who cannot get to distribution sites.

“It’s very important to get food to people through various sources,” she added.

On Friday, Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and a group of their colleagues, announced that they planned to reintroduce a bill in Congress that calls for the federal government to pay 100% "of the cost to states and localities so that they can partner with restaurants and nonprofits to prepare nutritious meals for vulnerable populations, such as seniors and underprivileged children.”

Theresa Hammer of Groton, who was at the Friday distribution in New London, is in her second layoff from Foxwoods Resort Casino, where she has worked for five years. “It’s beyond their control,” she said of her employer. “They’ve been very good to me.” She learned of the food distribution online and said it helps her cover other expenses.

Nicholas Martino of New London said he picked up “the essentials” at Friday’s distribution, including vegetables and fruit, to help stretch his limited income. He lost his job when the Hermosa Group electrical company in Groton closed. He said he has been scouring the internet for jobs with no luck. The Navy veteran and culinary school graduate volunteers extensively in the city, helping veterans, the homeless and the community meal program. Once the pandemic clears, he hopes to host a cookout for local homeless people.

Paul Shipman, spokesman for Connecticut Food Bank, said in the last six months of 2020, his agency distributed 15.8 million pounds of food in six Connecticut counties, including New London County, an increase of 2 million pounds over the previous six months.

Connecticut Food Bank and Foodshare are co-sponsoring four weekly food distribution sites across the state, including new distributions in New London from 2:30 to 4 p.m. Fridays at St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Church, 10 Huntington St., and in Norwich from 9:30 a.m. to noon on Mondays at the former Foxwoods’ employee parking lot at 28 Stonington Road-Route 2.

“The pandemic has caused significant unemployment and economic stress for families, and we know that need will remain high for months to come,” Shipman said. “The new, weekly distributions we are offering in New London and Norwich will help households in need.”



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