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    Friday, July 19, 2024

    Groton Community Meals sees spike in demand for food, fellowship

    Groton residents Judy Sullivan, left, and Richie Morales talk as they eat dinner from Groton Community Meals at the Thrive55+ Active Living Center Monday, December 12, 2022. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Ed Card spoons pasta as he helps fellow volunteers prepare to-go meals for the Groton Community Meals distribution at the Thrive55+ Active Living Center Monday, December 12, 2022. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Volunteers Heather Drake and her daughter Lily place a bag of to-go meals in a client’s car during Groton Community Meals food distribution at the Thrive55+ Active Living Center Monday, December 12, 2022. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Volunteer Toni Schlais passes out desert during Groton Community Meals distribution of meals at the Thrive55+ Active Living Center Monday, December 12, 2022. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Volunteer Pat Parizo passes a to-go box for Groton Community Meals at the Groton Senior Center Monday, December 12, 2022. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Volunteers Heather Drake and her daughter Lily put a bag of to-go meals together during Groton Community Meals distribution at the Groton Senior Center Monday, December 12, 2022. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Groton — Local couple Adrian and Rebecca Haupt sat in a room decorated for the holidays at the Thrive 55+ Active Living Center on Monday night to have a meal with their longtime friend Cindy Bates.

    Rebecca Haupt helped Bates set up a new “Jitterbug” phone that is louder and easier to use and has emergency alerts. The couple has been helping Bates ― who is living with dementia and whose husband passed away some time ago ― to simplify her life.

    Haupt said the free meal they were enjoying through the Groton Community Meals program means the money that would have been spent on a meal can go towards other necessities for Bates, which is particularly helpful during a time of inflation, and it’s also an opportunity to socialize.

    “This helps because sometimes she needs a little more help than her finances can afford so this helps me so that we don’t have to pay so much and we can help her out with other things,” Haupt said.

    The three are among the many people who enjoy the free hot meals offered by Groton Community Meals.

    Groton Community Meals, a Groton-based nonprofit organization, offers free dinners twice a week and serves about 120 to 150 meals per site, sometimes even reaching 200, and is looking to expand to serve more areas in Groton, said board Chair Courtney Coates.

    Take-out and dine-in meals are offered Monday evenings at Thrive 55+ and take-out meals are offered Wednesday evenings at Thames River Magnet School in the City of Groton.

    Coates said she thinks a lot of people have felt a “delayed strain” from the COVID-19 pandemic, whether from changes in jobs or housing, that might not have been apparent at first. With inflation and rising housing costs, it’s becoming more and more difficult for people to afford basic necessities at times.

    Coates said the free meals allow people the opportunity to use their limited resources for other needs. She said the sites are accessible so people can easily pick up food for their families and bring back home.

    Groton resident Holly Perry sat at a table Monday with friends, including Waterford resident Adele Hensley and Hensley’s mother, Patty Lawton of Groton, to enjoy a meal.

    Perry said she’s on a fixed income and having one or two free meals a week helps her financially, especially with rising grocery prices. Perry, who lives by herself, said she’s “not much of a cook” so she gets a meal and also an opportunity to meet people and develop friendships.

    “It just kind of perks up your spirits,” Perry said.

    ‘Food and fellowship’

    Groton Community Meals started about eight years ago when a group of people in the local community came together to create a free meal center in the Groton community, Coates explained. Groton Community Meals served meals at Faith Lutheran Church, as well as St. John’s Christian Church, and then grew to serve meals on Monday nights out of the Groton Senior Center, now Thrive 55+. Volunteers prepare a meal for about 120 people every Monday.

    “Our tagline has always been food and fellowship and really bringing people in the community together that are in need,” Coates said. “There’s no questions asked. We just invite anyone and everyone who needs a hot meal to come in and sit with us.”

    In 2020, the organization added dinners on Wednesday at a second site located at the former West Side Middle School in the city, but only operated there for a short time before the pandemic hit and the organization had to cease operations in both locations, Coates said.

    The organization pivoted to take-out meals out of Faith Lutheran Church before returning in April to serve take-out meals out of the Thrive 55+ Active Living Center and, beginning in June, out of Thames River Magnet School, a new school built on the site of West Side Middle School. A dine-in option recently added at Thrive 55+.

    Coates said the organization was serving about 110 to 130 a night when it returned to Thrive 55+, but saw that number grow this year to 150 or more meals.

    “We’re cooking for about 300 meals a week right now and have definitely seen the pinch with inflation and supply chain as well,” Coates said.

    The take-out meals also mean a greater demand for paper products and containers, she said.

    At the same time, food pantries are struggling to keep certain items in stock, she explained. Groton Community Meals gets a majority of its food from the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center and Connecticut Foodshare, but is having to supplement more and more by purchasing its own food items, as it is not able to get certain items.

    The nonprofit mostly is funded through donations and also fund-raises, she said. The organization has one stipend position, and otherwise is run by volunteers. The town and school district allow the organization to use the sites at no cost.

    The number of people receiving meals has dipped a bit in recent weeks as it is dark by 6 p.m., which makes it difficult for some people to get to the site, Coates said. She thinks later in winter more people will come to the dinner due to rising heating costs.

    Groton Community Meals submitted an application to the town for American Rescue Plan Act funds for a pickup truck and food trailer to allow more people to access the services, as some people struggle with the transportation, Coates said.

    “We’re really looking at a way to more broadly cover Groton,” said Coates, crediting Groton Human Services Director Marge Fondulas, a board member, for her advocacy. Fondulas also oversees the Thames River site.

    The organization could cook simple meals off site, or cook meals at one of its sites to then bring to locations, to be determined, to which people can walk easily. For example, when cooking at Thrive 55+, the organization could bring extra meals to the Branford Manor apartments or another site in the city. When cooking at Thames River Magnet school, the organization could bring the meals to the Poquonnock Bridge neighborhood.

    Coates said this would continue some efforts made during the pandemic to make meals more accessible. During the pandemic, the organization partnered with Children’s First Groton, which helped deliver meals to people. The senior center, Parks and Recreation Department and town police and others collaborated on the Community First Dinner Program to bring meals to several different community locations.

    Helping neighbors

    On Mondays and Wednesdays, cars line up outside both sites as people picked up free meals, sometimes bringing them to their neighbors and friends.

    At Thames River Magnet School on Wednesday evening, naval submarine officers Daniel Jeong, Bryce Kleinman and Roman Kokowsky coordinated to fill bags with food and bring them to people waiting outside.

    Dorothy Green walked to the site with her neighbor Debbie Straus, who is in a motorized chair. The seniors, who live in a nearby apartment complex for low-income seniors or people with disabilities, come every week to pick up dinner.

    “It’s beautiful. They do a nice job,” Green said. “I enjoy it.”

    They said the free meal is particularly helpful for them now: “The food prices are sky high now,” said Straus.

    Their neighbor, Richard Harteis, who was in his car waiting to pick up food, offered to deliver their meals. He said he occasionally brings meals from the site to his neighbors. The meal not only helps him financially but also gives him more time, rather than having to cook.

    Carol Pendexter of Groton was picking up meals with her daughter, Amanda Pendexter, and Amanda’s neighbor Allen Meritt. The free meals help offset the high costs of food and gas, Carol said.

    “Since Covid, we can’t afford food so we come here, and it’s amazing,” Amanda said. “They’re amazing people. They’re doing really good for the community.”

    Ed and Nicholi Bostwick, a married couple who live at Branford Manor, said they both have disabilities and the meals are helpful to supplement food stamps. They also pick up meals for their son, who is 20 and no longer qualifies for free meal programs for youths, and for their neighbors who either don’t drive or have kids they need to stay home with.

    The free meal means “a little bit less stress especially around the holidays,” Nicholi Bostwick said.

    Helping out

    Chef Robert Lawrence, who recently won a staff member of the year award at the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut’s Social Services Recognition Breakfast, said he has seen the program grow over the years from serving about 50 to 60 meals a night to serving about 150 meals a night.

    With the help of volunteers, Lawrence, a former Navy chef who owned a restaurant in the 1980’s, makes batches of dishes, from beef stroganoff to baked ziti and has about three hours to prepare the meal.

    The organization does not know ahead of time how many people will show up that evening. Heather Drake of Mystic, who volunteers with her 16-year-old daughter, Lily, said she has seen nights when many people show up for food and the program is close to running out of a dish, and Lawrence will start whipping up something new.

    “It’s like magic,” she said.

    Fellowship one car at a time

    On Monday night, the Drakes, who started volunteering about a year and a half ago after seeing the increased need during the pandemic, and board Treasurer Don Fauver, who oversees the Thrive 55+ site, greeted people and handed out meals to people in their cars.

    Lily and Heather said the volunteers and the residents picking up meals build connections together. They enjoy recognizing the people, feeling the sense of community and seeing their smiles.

    Fauver said he’s trying to provide fellowship one car at a time.

    “We do this on a very small budget,” said Fauver, adding that the annual budget is about $15,000 to $18,000. “We couldn’t pull this off without the awesome support of the volunteers that we have.”

    Coates said the organization is always looking for volunteers and donations.

    Sherry Bassi, a retired nurse, and her husband Dom Bassi of Groton, a retired Groton school principal, volunteer as part of a team at Thames River.

    “We’ve been very impressed with the team effort and everyone knows what their job is, plus it’s a lot of fun,” she said. “We enjoy the people.”

    It’s also rewarding to know they’re helping to feed people.

    “There’s a lot of programs in the area, and I think living in Groton and southeastern Connecticut we recognize that there’s a vast continuum between the haves and the have-nots, and we recognize that, and so it’s nice to be able to reach out to various marginalized communities,” said Sherry Bassi, adding that many people are trying to hold down two or three jobs and make ends meet.

    For more information on Groton Community Meals, visit their website at www.grotonmeals.org.

    k.drelich@theday.com

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