Published August 18. 2014 4:00AM Updated August 18. 2014 3:34PM
Norwich - After being unemployed for two years, Brenda Thomas recently began her new career as a certified nursing assistant.
And while Thomas, who is in her 50s, is grateful to be working again, she's still not earning enough to make ends meet.
She was one of about 60 people who visited the St. Vincent de Paul Place food pantry on a recent food distribution day. Pantries like St. Vincent's are seeing more people like Thomas - people who are struggling to find work or are working and finding it difficult to survive - and more single people. The demand is so high that the United Way of Southeastern Connecticut is launching its 12th mobile food pantry site.
Julie Way, a caseworker at St. Vincent, says she sees firsthand the struggle of people just to stay afloat.
"The people who were doing OK before are really struggling now," said Way. "The expenses are really exceeding the living conditions and pay people are making. It's getting even harder for low-income people to meet their basic living expenses."
Way said a person who lives in Norwich and takes a bus to a part-time job in New London will pay $4 a day just in transportation.
"It may not sound like a lot, but that's a large portion of someone's income when they are barely making enough as it is," said Way.
Thomas said her new income helps pay utility and food bills. Her husband's income helps cover the other household expenses. Two of her three adult children live out of state.
"This place is so important," said Thomas. "When the food stamps start to run out, this helps your food stretch out longer. I don't know what I would do without this place."
Thomas used to work as a seamstress and at temporary jobs at Labor Ready. When her sister offered to pay for her to attend a family vacation, she asked her sister instead to use the money to pay for her certified nursing assistant classes.
Still, she said, working hasn't been easy. Her patients are mostly in Clinton and Old Saybrook, meaning she has to pay someone $40 to get her to and from work.
Even then, Thomas says, "It's nice to be working again."
Dan Lamphere, St. Vincent's food pantry coordinator, said the demand for food has never been greater. The food pantry distributes food from 1 to 3 p.m. Monday and Wednesday and from 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday.
He started working at St. Vincent in 2007 as a volunteer. Back then, he would see about 30 individuals on any given food distribution day. Now, it's not uncommon to see 60 to 70, he said.
"We are seeing a lot of the working poor," said Lamphere. "They are working, but it's just not enough."
In June, the pantry provided 19,611 meals and had an average of 63 visits per distribution day. The size of the household determines how much canned and dried food and produce the person receives. Before receiving the food, the person must fill out applications for the Connecticut Nutrition Assistance Program and the federal Emergency Food Assistance Program to see if they qualify.
The pantry is located in the library of the former St. Joseph School on Cliff Street. Hours before the 1 p.m. opening, people come in to receive their ticket, which gives them a number and an estimated time to come back.
As the time approaches, the corridor outside the library is lined with people, some carrying shopping bags and others lugging shopping carts.
Because Dan Emilyta, 61, is disabled he doesn't have to wait in the long line. With the assistance of a cane, he slowly walks across the bookshelves that are holding the food. He is offered a choice of canned soup, pasta or rice, fruit salad, chicken or beef ramen noodles. He also gets eggs, a bag of produce and some more dried goods.
Emilyta had his right hip replaced and will eventually need his left knee replaced. Before the hip replacement, he was confined to a wheelchair. Lamphere would have to go outside and bring his groceries out because the food pantry is not handicap accessible.
Emilyta is permanently disabled and receives around $1,000 a month in disability.
"I think what people don't understand is that I still have to pay for my health insurance from my disability check," said Emilyta. "It's tight, but I'm OK. I still manage."
He said he enjoys the soups and other food he gets from the pantry.
"This place helps a lot of people out," said Emilyta.
Lamphere said food donations are down at the pantry in part because it's summer but also and because people who used to donate can no longer afford to give food away.
The pantry's major food sources are the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center, Hart's Greenhouses in Norwich and Canterbury, LoPresti Farm in Preston and Malerba's Farm in Norwich.
Jill Davoll, marketing and communications director of the United Way of Southeastern Connecticut, said donations dwindle during the summer because people are on vacation and food drives tend to be centered around Thanksgiving and other winter holidays.
"Unfortunately, hunger is a year-round problem," said Davoll. "This certainly challenges us to keep up with demand as children are not in school receiving breakfast and lunch. This puts a strain on local feeding sites, including the free summer meal sites, and for those families struggling to make ends meet."
Davoll said the food center is giving out more food than ever before. Its mobile food pantry program was launched in May 2013, with three initial sites serving about 200 households in Jewett City, Norwich and Groton.
A little more than a year later that number has grown to 500. Starting next month they will have 12 mobile pantry sites and expect to distribute more than 24,000 meals each month.
Last year, the food center provided more than 2.1 million meals through its network of local feeding sites.
One of those sites is the Lord's Pantry at St. James Episcopal Church in New London. Each Tuesday from 10 a.m. to noon. they provide bread and produce, and once a month, dry and canned goods.
The pantry relies on donations from the food center and the public and from the rector at St. James, the Rev. Michel Belt, who gives the donations he receives for performing weddings and funerals.
By 10:30 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, 58 people filled the Parish Hall, waiting for their numbers to be called.
Lillian Beeler, a volunteer at the pantry, said she sees a lot of single people seeking assistance.
"They don't make a lot," said Beeler. "...and everything is so expensive. The price of food, especially bread and milk, is so high."
A 44-year-old single woman, who identified herself as Jae, said it was her first visit to the pantry. Her unemployment benefits ran out and she had just applied for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which she said she wouldn't receive for another month.
She has worked numerous part-time jobs, most recently as a bartender. She wants full-time work, but those jobs are hard to find, she says.
"I heard about this place from a friend, but didn't come because there were other families in need who needed it more than me," the woman said. "I also kept hoping that I would find a good job, and that hasn't happened yet."
In May, the pantry had 13 singles newly seeking assistance. In June it was 16 and in July it was 18. Last month, the pantry provided 2,367 meals - 468 more meals than the previous month.