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Salem - Driving through the winding back roads of Salem, past forests and farms, it's hard to imagine the town could in any way be considered a desert.
But according to Jill Davoll, communications director for the United Way of Southeastern Connecticut, Salem is one of the many Connecticut towns considered a "food desert," a term describing the community's difficulty in accessing healthy and affordable food due to distance from grocery stores and lack of public transportation.
Even though a 2013 report published by the United Way stated that Salem was ranked by the University of Connecticut to be among the five lowest-risk towns in New London County for the likelihood that residents will experience food insecurity, it was also ranked by the university as one of the five lowest-ranking towns for access to public food assistance programs and one of the five lowest-ranking towns for access to food retailers, according to the United Way's report.
For these reasons, beginning on Aug. 6, the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center will add a distribution location in Salem for its mobile food pantry, a refrigerated truck that allows volunteers to provides families in need with a week's worth of fresh produce, dairy products, proteins and snacks - foods that are often not available at other food pantries. The mobile food pantry will be available in the parking lot next to Salem School at 5 p.m. on the first Wednesday of each month.
What is unique about the program is that there is no preregistration required, Davoll said.
"People can just show up; we have a 'no questions asked' policy. We only ask that people bring their ID and their own bags or boxes" she said, adding that accepting food from the mobile pantry does not affect a person's eligibility to receive assistance from other programs.
The United Way report states that the average number of miles from Salem to the nearest supermarket is 4.74, putting it in the higher end of a mid range alongside towns like Preston at 4.75 miles and Bozrah at 4.6 miles. Davoll said that in areas with limited access to food retailers, residents may be forced to shop for groceries at convenience stores where food is more expensive and healthy produce is not often available.
First Selectman Kevin Lyden initiated the addition of a Salem food pantry distribution location.
"We have several families in town and neighboring towns ... they're working and they're just barely getting by," said Lyden, who added that Salem's closest grocery stores are in Norwich, Colchester, East Lyme or Waterford. "We have affluent people in town; we also have people who are in need. So we have to provide for all."
Davoll said that the Salem location will add to the nine existing distribution locations in New London County, which include Groton, Norwich and Stonington, and will bring the United Way one step closer in reaching its goal of 12 locations. Davoll said that food pantry locations are chosen based on where the United Way will be able to reach the greatest number of people.
"With the nine distribution sites, we're feeding upwards of 900 households a month," said Davoll. "Hunger is unfortunately affecting more and more people."
In the 2010-11 school year, 16.9 percent of the school lunches served in Salem were given to students who qualified for free or reduced price lunches, according to the United Way's report. Davoll said that demand for food from the mobile pantry increases in the summer months when kids aren't getting breakfast and lunch at school. She also said that it is difficult to predict how many families in Salem will choose to participate in the food pantry program given that it takes a few months to "get the word out."
Now that the food pantry will be coming to Salem, the town will need to provide 10 to 12 volunteers for two hours to help manage setup and distribution of food at the pantry. Those interested in volunteering can contact Food Pantry Coordinator Jennifer Blanco at firstname.lastname@example.org or Salem Administrative Assistant Sue Spang at email@example.com.