Mobile Food Pantry draws record crowd in Groton

Volunteers assist patrons of the Gemma E. Moran United Way Labor Food Center's mobile food pantry with different selections Wednesday during a stop at Groton Family Services.
Volunteers assist patrons of the Gemma E. Moran United Way Labor Food Center's mobile food pantry with different selections Wednesday during a stop at Groton Family Services. Tim Cook/The Day

Groton — The Mobile Food Pantry stopped at Groton Human Services for the first time Wednesday, and so many people showed up that a police officer had to direct traffic.

Officer Heather McClelland said the human services office called police a day or so earlier to prepare. Groton Utilities let about 20 cars park on the grass on their property.

The pantry distributed bags containing fresh fruit, vegetables, chicken and meat to 90 families.

Groton's was the largest turnout workers have seen when stopping at a site for the first time, said Jennifer Blanco, mobile food pantry coordinator. The pantry is a refrigerated truck supplied by United Way, the Connecticut Food Bank and Connecticut Light & Power. Local farmers and grocery stores donate food.

The pantry requires patrons to show identification but not proof of income. Volunteers had handed bags to 40 families within the first half-hour.

Carl Smith, a volunteer from Christ United Methodist Church in Groton, said he was struck by both the number of people and the fact that many looked like they could have been volunteers themselves.

"They seem to be from all walks of life. It makes you feel humble, that you're not one of them that has to be in line," he said.

Smith said he expected a different picture.

"These people were dressed like everybody's dressed," he said. "It touches you inside, I guess."

The total amount distributed will serve 234 people, of whom 30 are seniors and 83 are children, Blanco said. They include people living in Groton, Mystic, Ledyard, North Stonington, Norwich, Bozrah, Niantic, Quaker Hill and New London.

The pantry prepared for more than 100 families. Its largest, first-time turnout previously had been outside Thames River Apartments in New London, where it gave food to 70 families.

Blanco said she likes that the program is welcoming, even if it's difficult to see so many struggling.

"But at the same time, they need the assistance, and we don't want anybody to go hungry in New London County," she said.

Some in line Wednesday agreed to be interviewed but didn't want their names to be used because they were embarrassed or in tears. One woman said her husband was about to be laid off from Electric Boat and she had no money for gas to take a test to drive a school bus. She had gotten a ride to the food pantry.

Another woman said she had to start looking for food programs about five months ago, and used to hide or hope no one recognized her.

Christine Seckley, 36, said a friend told her about the pantry, so she drove from Ledyard. She works at Starwood Village Market and has three daughters, ages 4, 12 and 16.

"One of them is about to be applying to college, so it's a little rough," she said.

Groton Human Services Director Marge Fondulas said she was not surprised by the crowd.

"There are families that if they're still getting a paycheck, they're living paycheck to paycheck," she said. "Rents are high in Groton, food prices are high. ... It's a situation that hasn't improved."

Bill Burling, 68, of Ledyard, dropped a box of fresh vegetables in the back of his car and wept at a generosity he hadn't expected. He thought he'd get boxes of pasta. Not almond milk and kale.

He and his wife are trying to eat healthier, but that's hard to do when you don't have money, he said.

"You know, people had to give money to make this happen," Burling said. "They had to give time. You expect people not to be generous. But they are."

d.straszheim@theday.com

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