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East Lyme - On a crisp, but sunny September morning, representatives from the Shoreline Soup Kitchens and Pantries cheerfully carted boxes into St. John's Episcopal Church on Main Street.
Unloading packages of canned vegetables and juice into a storage room, they began organizing the food they had trucked over earlier onto six-foot high shelves.
Drivers Chris Russo, Shirley Goff and Deb Kimball busily took several trips from the Shoreline truck to transport and set up the nearly 3,000 pounds of food.
"It's like moving into a new house," Sherrie Weiss, the food pantry's manager, said excitedly as she hoisted a box of food onto the new shelf.
The church on Main Street in downtown Niantic will now act as the town's new Shoreline food pantry location. The ministry serves residents from the 11 towns of East Lyme, Old Lyme, Lyme, Old Saybrook, Westbrook, Clinton, Chester, Essex, Deep River, Madison and Killingworth.
The pantry, one of Shoreline's several meal sites and pantries in the region, first opened more than three years ago at the Niantic Community Church, said Executive Director Patty Dowling. At that time, 40 to 50 families would visit each week. Now the number is up to 75 to 90 families each week, she said.
The community church had graciously offered them space for years, but the pantry was simply finding that they needed additional storage space with the increased demand, explained Dowling. Additionally, the pantry needed space to house supplies over a longer period of time, since it could take a couple of weeks to store up enough of an item to distribute to all the pantry's patrons.
St. John's Church will house groceries in an approximately 14-by-12-foot storage room installed with new shelves and a 40-by-40-foot wood-floored distribution room, where rolling carts will hold tuna, canned vegetables, dairy products, beans and other offerings. The pantry receives its food from sources, including the Gemma E. Moran Food Bank in New London and grants.
St. John's Church, which participates in community programs such as "Food to Donate," which picks up frozen meals from restaurants for distribution, had been looking for new ministries prior to speaking with representatives from Shoreline Soup Kitchens and Pantries.
"I think God just dropped it here in our lap," said Carolyn Miller of St. John's Church, reflecting on the opportunity with her husband, Richard Miller, a senior warden, last Tuesday.
Miller had been speaking on the phone with Weiss last spring, who mentioned needing more storage space for the pantry, as demand for groceries grew.
When Miller heard about the pantry's need, she said felt like a light bulb went on in her head: St. John's had just finished renovating and remodeling the church. The renovations called for moving the nursery upstairs, leaving an extra room empty.
Dowling said there was a lot of momentum moving forward as the church and food pantry shared their plans with parishioners each week. On Sept. 15, 50 congregants came to a forum where St. John's and food pantry representatives shared the agreement between the pantry and the church and answered questions.
The volunteers for the pantry are continuing their service and about five to 10 congregants have expressed interest in volunteering in some capacity.
In addition to distributing food every Thursday from 5 to 6 p.m., the food pantry will continue to offer additional community service opportunities, such as food drives and special events.
There is a seating area in the sun-filled distribution room at St. John's where visitors can sit during special holiday programs or while waiting to pick up groceries.
"There will be a place to have fellowship and sit and wait," said Dowling.
The church space also offers a visible location downtown, but also one that is private with patrons entering through the back entrance, said Dowling. There is also a low-incline ramp leading to the pantry, which makes it easier to transport food.
Dowling said the economic downturn has led to a growing number of people who patronize the pantry.
"The economy absolutely has not recovered in our area in terms of jobs and pay," she said.
Some people who were laid off from their jobs two to three years ago continue to face financial problems, such as having to have spent their savings or accruing credit card debt for their living expenses, she said. Even if they have found a job it tends to be at a lower salary than they held previously or require additional training, she explained.
In addition, she said it was fortunate that the new space became available at a time when even more people could be visiting the pantry, in light of potential cuts to food stamp benefits under the farm bill.
For more information on services or to volunteer, call (860) 388-1988 or visit www.shorelinesoupkitchens.org.