New London - In 1988, when Gemma E. Moran started the food pantry that now bears her name, she could never have imagined that today it would be providing food to 100 feeding sites across the region and helping feed 20,000 people a month.
"I strongly believe that no one, especially children, should go to bed hungry," said Moran. "We have to end hunger in New London County."
So it was with a wide grin Friday that Moran, barely able to contain her excitement, announced that the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center has added another tool to combat hunger - a mobile food pantry. It was officially unveiled during a brief ceremony in the parking lot of St. Mary Star of the Sea.
"This is nothing short of miraculous," said Moran. "Imagine the people we can reach, the people who don't have access to food pantries. With this pantry, we can go out to the people who need it the most."
Nancy L. Carrington, Connecticut Food Bank's president and CEO, said that after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, officials from Connecticut Light & Power approached the organization to ask how it could help the community.
Carrington said the food bank serves six out of eight counties and has found that its greatest asset in times of disasters is its vehicles, as they can get to hard-to-reach areas.
William J. Quinlan, CL&P's senior vice president for emergency preparedness, said the company donated $1 million. A portion of the proceeds was used to purchase three vehicles.
"We're a statewide company with over a million customers across the state," said Quinlan. "We see the impacts of hunger. It has no boundaries. It doesn't discriminate. It's a small token of our appreciation, and we're glad to help."
Thanks to the donation, Carrington said, the food bank was able to give the Moran center the mobile food pantry, which she said is valued at about $125,000. It can hold six pallets of refrigerated food and another six pallets of non-refrigerated food, she said.
"What we're seeing is that more and more people are turning to food banks," said Carrington. "We're seeing people who do have jobs or recently lost jobs turning to food banks because they're economically stressed."
Keith Fontaine, chairman of the United Way board of directors, said the mobile pantry will be able to reach areas known as "food deserts" - areas where, for some residents, supermarkets or larger grocery stores are more than a mile away.
Fontaine said the organization last month released a first-of-its-kind report titled "Nourishing Change: The New London County Food Baseline Report," which examines the health of the region's food system.
The report stated that in the past 10 years there has been a nearly three-fold increase in the demand for emergency food. The Moran center's annual food distribution increased from 843,000 pounds in 2001 to nearly 3 million pounds in 2013.
The study found that there are five census tracts in New London County, including sections of Griswold, Norwich and Groton, that are considered "food deserts."
The issue becomes even more problematic when there is no public transportation to food suppliers; the study found that only 13 of 21 towns in the county have public bus transportation, and countywide, 8,334 households have no vehicle available.
Set up similar to a farmers market, the mobile pantry will distribute fresh fruits and vegetables, foods rich in protein and other healthy food items at sites at the same date and time each month for one to two hours.
Under the truck's awning, tables of food will be set up on both sides of the vehicle. People will be able to bring their own bags and will receive eight to 12 free items.
Sites are determined on where and when the most people in need can be reached. So far, distribution sites in Jewett City, Norwich and Groton have been selected.
Virginia L. Mason, president and CEO of the United Way of Southeastern Connecticut, said that the goal is to make people who go to the mobile food pantry feel as comfortable as possible.
"We treat people with dignity and respect," Mason said, "because it can happen to any of us."