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New London - It's either feast or famine at the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center.
Last week at the food center warehouse on Broad Street, it was a feast day.
"You know it's not always like this," said Sara Chaney, product manager at the warehouse. "Some days we don't have nearly as much produce to offer to our shoppers. It is just mostly dry goods."
But last Tuesday there were pallets of fresh broccoli, mushrooms, pineapples, apples, carrots and strawberries. The shoppers she referred to are the dedicated workers and volunteers who come in each week to select food to restock their community pantries and help put food on the tables of the region's neediest. Other shoppers pick up food for community meals or on-site programs at places such as child care centers.
Chaney said the need to feed the poor is greater than ever. The food center is supporting Hunger Action Month, a partnership of the Feeding America network and its partner food banks nationwide, to urge individuals to take action in their communities and educate others about hunger.
"So many people have jobs but are underpaid," said Chaney. "Working at McDonald's or Burger King is not enough to make ends meet for yourself, let alone a family."
More than 31,000 people in New London County are considered "food insecure," according to Feeding America. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released a study stating that 49 million people in the United States, including nearly 16 million children, live at risk of hunger.
Corinne Kelly, a volunteer at St. Vincent de Paul Place in Norwich, said she doesn't know the specific reasons why more people are turning to the food pantry; she just knows they are.
Last year, St. Vincent de Paul Place distributed 132,141 pounds of food received from the food bank. In the first six months of this year, it has distributed 91,022 pounds and, as Kelly notes, at that rate will exceed last year's distribution. She said participants can visit the pantry once a week, but notes that 50 percent visit only once a month.
"They only come when they need it and only take what they need," said Kelly.
She said foods that are always in demand are nutritious forms of protein like canned tuna or meats or soups with substance.
"We try to give a week's worth of food if possible ... but we are not talking about meals that you and I are used to," said Kelly. "We're talking about a can of soup or tuna fish."
The shoppers start entering the warehouse at 7:30 a.m. through a rear entrance next to the garage. They come in half-hour increments until noon. Shopping days are Tuesday through Friday. The shoppers greet Chaney and quickly get to work, hauling a flat pull cart for the food they will need for the week.
Dan Ivey, who coordinates St. James Episcopal Church's monthly community meal and its weekly Lord's Pantry, and his volunteers start their day at 4:30 a.m. when they first collect bread from the Bimbo bakery warehouse in East Lyme. Then they head over to the food center for the church's 7:30 a.m. allotted time.
Ivey said The Lord's Pantry runs every Tuesday in New London from 10 a.m. to noon. Participants get a voucher from the Thames Valley Council for Community Action, which allows them to pick up food from the pantry. The church also supports a community meal on the first Saturday of the month.
Ivey said the pantry has been providing bread and produce for the last two years. He said for many of the people they serve, buying fresh produce is simply too expensive.
"It's really meant to be a supplement, but what we are seeing is that the pantry is becoming their main source of food," said Ivey. "We are seeing more people with children coming in. It's just getting harder and harder for them to make ends meet."
Ivey takes cases of Ragu pasta sauce, tuna fish, fresh mushrooms and pineapples, among other supplies.
He has found that some items are better received than others. The strawberries are a hit while kale isn't - mainly because, he says, people don't know what to do with it.
A surprise to him was how well cilantro - an herb used in a lot of Hispanic cooking - was received.
The Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center distributes more than 2 million pounds of food every year to nearly 100 member feeding sites, including shelters, soup kitchens, food pantries, programs for the elderly, child care centers and community meals sites, all located in New London County. It is also serving more than 300 households each month through the six distribution sites visited by its mobile food pantry. Last year, the food center helped feed 20,000 people each month. It also offers non-food items such as lotions and detergents at just 18 cents a pound.
Chaney said she started working there more than 20 years ago when it was located in Norwich and just had one pallet of food to offer. Now hundreds of pallets fill the 200,000-square-foot facility.
She said the member agencies that send their shoppers pay $200 for a year's membership and an extra $100 for each additional program. For example, the Salvation Army in New London pays $300 a year because it has both a food pantry and a soup kitchen.
Chaney said shoppers can take as much as they want unless there is a limited quantity of a certain product or the food is designated for programs that feed on site. Before shoppers leave, they must weigh the food they take so the food center can keep track of how much food it disburses.
Chaney, along with warehouse specialists Jack Hinds and Tony Ribeiro, ensures that products keep moving. The men spend most of their week traveling to local supermarkets, wholesale food distributors and big box stores collecting donated products or driving the mobile food pantry. They also receive donated food from people or through food drives. Most of the food the warehouse receives comes from the Connecticut Food Bank in New Haven.
The Gemma Moran center also has a program called Plenty of Produce for People, where walk-ins can visit on Fridays at 11:30 a.m. and get produce that will not last until the next distribution on the following Tuesday. The produce that isn't taken goes to a local pig farm.
"For years, I was telling the board that the pigs eat better than some people in our community," said Chaney. "It was important for us to reach as many people as possible because we all know that it's cheaper to buy junk food than fruit and vegetables." As a result, the P.O.P.P. program was created.
Kelly said Tuesday that on that visit that she would fill three pickup trucks with food, and all of it would be gone by the time she visits the food center this week. St. Vincent de Paul Place offers breakfast and lunch six days a week and opens its pantry Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. Those who come in for the first time are interviewed and fill out an emergency food assistance program form, which ensures that the participant meets certain guidelines.
"We are serving the working poor ... but the goal of our program is to offer hope and dignity and to make it possible to survive without us," said Kelly.
On the Saturday before last, the pantry gave food to 88 families, which Kelly said left the shelves bare for Monday's distribution. The organization had to use gift cards to stock the shelves until they received a new batch of products from the food center.
In July, St. Vincent de Paul provided 28,000 meals and every month feeds 300 to 350 different children, she added.
"We would not survive without Gemma," said Kelly.