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Demand for local food pantries rises while centers struggle with supplies

New London police closed a portion of Broad Street on Wednesday evening, and cars lined up along side streets, as a steady stream of pedestrians also made their way to the Gemma Moran United Way/Labor Food Bank at 347 Broad St. for a planned hourlong food pantry.

But when people started lining up at 2 p.m. for the 5 p.m. food pantry, Dina Sears-Graves, vice president of community impact and warehouse manager, marshaled staff and 20 volunteers to start an hour early. In two hours, the food bank handed out pre-bagged perishable groceries — frozen meat, fresh fruit and vegetables, two dozen eggs and a gallon of milk — to some 400 people.

Jennifer Blanco, member services manager at the food bank, stood at the driveway entrance to direct both pedestrian and drive-up patrons.

“Please wait on the sidewalk!” she yelled to walk-ups. “Please stay 6 feet away, 6 feet apart!”

The food bank received huge donations of perishable food from the shuttered Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods casinos. Normally, the Gemma Moran mobile and pop-up food pantries run “farmer’s market style,” Sears-Graves said, but with concerns about the COVID-19 virus, staff and volunteers bought an array of reusable plastic and canvas shopping bags and prepackaged everything.

Many patrons didn’t even know what was in the bags as they thanked staff and volunteers and quickly moved on.

Yanying Li of Old Lyme, a furloughed casino worker and mother of three children, learned about Wednesday’s food pantry when she picked up grab-and-go breakfast and lunch at Old Lyme schools for her children. She parked a half-mile away at a gas station and walked to the Gemma Moran center.

Karrie Improte of Colchester, who is disabled and not working, parked a quarter-mile away. She came with a friend to New London, because the Colchester mobile food pantry was canceled.

“It’s a big help in a hard time,” Improte said, glancing into her bag while her friend fetched the car. “I don’t know what’s in it. Frozen meat, produce, milk, eggs. They’re very generous.”

“It’s good, because a lot of people don’t have food,” said Alex Osoreso of New London, who was laid off from the Rio Salado Mexican restaurant in Mystic.

Araquel Ayala of New London, disabled and not working, didn’t know about Wednesday’s food pantry. She asked a police officer what caused the traffic jam. She got in line. “It’s so good,” she said.

“We were very fortunate to have the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods donations,” Sears-Graves said. “Donations are down. What you’re seeing here is, a lot of people are not working. We already have a group of people that needs help, and this is on top of that.”

The heart of region's food pantries

The Gemma Moran United Way/Labor Food Bank is the food distribution hub for New London County, providing healthy food to 66 different programs in the region, including emergency food pantries, community meal sites, school-age meal programs and 10 mobile food pantries, Sears-Graves said.

Many local food pantries are making frequent trips to restock, as donations have dropped. Once plentiful staples are sparse on store shelves. Pantries need canned tuna, vegetables, pasta, sauce, cereal and peanut butter.

Some food pantries are asking donors to switch to online cash donations, rather than making food donations, to allow the pantries to buy food.

The St. Vincent de Paul Place soup kitchen at 120 Cliff St., Norwich, has a large bin at the Norwich Stop & Shop and signs posted at shelves asking shoppers to consider purchasing items especially in need. Executive Director Jillian Corbin said that's not working right now.

Corbin said Stop & Shop is a critical community partner year-round for St. Vincent. In addition to the collection bin, she regularly goes to the store for donations of produce, bread and desserts for St. Vincent clientele. Right now, the collection bin is bare, but the partnership continues.

“We’re still able to pick up breads, produce and treats there. The food pantry, we definitely are hurting for food. We’re still able to go to the Gemma Moran center for items.”

The soup kitchen has switched to takeout breakfasts and lunches: breakfast from 8 to 10 a.m. and lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

The takeout system added a new problem, Corbin said, because St. Vincent did not have containers for hundreds of meals per week. Then, a tractor-trailer arrived with 5,000 bags after Corbin posted the need on Facebook.

“I don’t know where they came from,” she said. “I just put out the call. The community in New London County is so great.”

Salvation Army chapters in New London and Norwich this week also received large donations from Mohegan Sun and from Mitchell College, said Major Carl Avery, divisional secretary and chief operating officer for the Southern New England Division, which covers Connecticut and Rhode Island. Mohegan Sun donated fresh fruit, potatoes, onions, celery, oranges, limes, lemons, cantaloupes and apples, New London Salvation Army Commander Capt. Jose Borrero said, while Mitchell College donated eggs and cheese.

Avery thanked Mohegan Sun and said the food will be shared with Salvation Army chapters in Rhode Island.

Borrero said before the COVID-19 crisis, the New London Salvation Army pantry usually served about 150 families a month. On Tuesday alone, the chapter gave out more than 100 boxes and another 300 bags of food, enough to last three to five days, depending on the size of the family, he said.

Lt. Cheryl McCollum, commander of the Norwich Salvation Army, said the Norwich food pantry serves 87 families per month. She has been stocking up at the Gemma Moran food bank and said the pantry especially needs breakfast items, with children home from school.

“We really need a good supply of canned and dry goods,” Avery said. “We’re purchasing some food from different places, large producers like Cisco, who can help at times. We deal with food insecurity all the time. This kind of pandemic, the crisis we have now, has everyone worried and you’re having that mad dash to the supermarket causing demand.”

The Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut kept its headquarters open at 28 Channing St., New London, mostly because its food pantry is there, federation office manager Mimi Perl said. The operation has shifted to appointments and scheduled pickups due to COVID-19 concerns. The food will be bagged and ready for quick hand-off, “so everybody can stay as safe as possible,” she said.

The federation stocks up using Gemma Moran’s new online ordering system, selecting items on the supply list, to be “reasonably sure” they will be in stock.

Federation staff are meeting online on how to prepare for Passover, which begins April 8. Perl hopes to have Passover food items in the pantry in time.

“We’re trying to reach out to people we’ve helped in the past with Passover needs,” she said, “and we reached out to the congregational rabbis to see if they have congregants who need food. We will be happy to go out and provide food.”

The Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center food pantry serves 1,211 clients, Executive Director Susan Sedensky said. This past week, 15 new people signed up. She expects that number to grow as more people are laid off.

“I feel like this is the calm before the storm,” she said.

Sedensky said some employers have contacted her about what resource information they can offer their employees being laid off. She said typically, it takes a while for a person laid off to come to the food pantry, especially if they’ve never done so before. They apply for unemployment, examine their finances and maybe seek help from family or friends before going to the pantry.

She said clients can come to the center’s window, request their food and a staff member will bring it to the curb. The pantry is open weekdays except Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Sedensky said the neighborhood center gets food from the Gemma Moran center, buys food and local restaurants donated food when they began closing. A local scallop fisherman also donated food.

She expects demand to rise for the center’s Weekend Backpack, which provides six meals for 213 children, including a gallon of milk, cereal, ingredients for full meals and snacks.

The Pawcatuck center also has partnered with Westerly-based Stand Up for Animals to provide pet food for those in need.

Giving Garden planting delayed

The virus also will affect the Giving Garden at the Coogan Farm Nature & Heritage Center in Mystic. In 2019, the garden grew and donated more than 6 tons of fresh produce to the Gemma Moran United Way/Labor Food Bank.

Davnet Shaffer, executive director of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, which oversees Coogan Farm, said the garden used 4,000 volunteer hours to help plant, tend and harvest produce last year.

But with social distancing and the desire to protect its volunteers, plantings have not begun. Shaffer said farm manager Craig Floyd and his volunteers would have been growing seedlings and planting cold weather crops in the field by now to produce several harvests and maximize production. Floyd is revising his planting schedules for different starting dates.

“He’s looking at what we can do to produce as much as possible,” Shaffer said, adding that production is expected to be lower this year. “We’ll get going as soon as we get the go ahead.”

Shaffer said the garden does more than provide produce for the food center.

“Its primary role is to teach method to other gardeners and farmers, so they can produce their own food. That gives us the greatest impact,” she said.

Day Staff Writers Joe Wojtas and Greg Smith contributed to this report.

c.bessette@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version clarifies that St. Vincent de Paul Place retains a strong partnership with Stop & Shop even though dry goods donations from shoppers are down.

How to donate

Many local food pantries and meal centers are seeking cash donations to restock their shelves during times when grocery store shelves are depleted.

Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center: visit bit.ly/PNCdonate or send a check to PNC, P.O. Box 1697, Pawcatuck, CT 06379.

Diocese of Norwich Catholic Charities: visit bit.ly/CCFSNdonate.

Salvation Army: click the "Donate" button at bit.ly/NorwichCTSA for Norwich or bit.ly/NewLondonCTSA for New London.

St. Vincent de Paul Place, Norwich: visit svdpp.org and click the "Donate" button.

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