New London food center celebrates three decades of feeding the hungry

New London — Gemma E. Moran hardly believes the numbers herself.

The Broad Street food center that bears her name provided more than 1.8 million meals and snacks to people in need last year through its 79 distribution sites.

And nearly 20,000 people a month are served by the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center.

Moran wiped her eyes upon hearing a reporter recite the numbers during an interview this past Friday at her Groton home. She is 94 now and doesn't go into the food center as often as she did over the past three decades. But she's still on call, and plans to attend and speak at the 30th anniversary celebration planned for Friday.

She wants no accolades, no honors, Moran said, pounding on her dining room table for emphasis. A good leader puts others in front, she said.

"I am not important," she said. "The people of New London County are the backbone. It was the labor movement that founded this with the cooperation of the United Way."

Moran was born in 1924 into a large family in Everett, Mass., and learned firsthand what it feels like to be insecure about food and to work in a sweatshop. During the Great Depression, everybody had to work, she said, so she got a job at age 10 in a factory that made boxes. After graduating from high school, she worked in a plant that converted raw coal into coke, a fuel. She was one of only four women in a plant of 1,400 men, Moran said, and conditions were poor.

She was elected as a health and welfare official for her union, and that began her lifelong dedication to improving the conditions of working people.

She came to Connecticut in 1962 to work in the Industrial Relations Department at Electric Boat. In the 1970s, she established the first labor participation department in the United Way. In 1988, Moran said she was working for the United Way as a labor liaison to help distressed workers when she realized that after paying for living expenses, many had little left for food.

"A woman came to me with two small children and the little one said, 'My mother has no money for food,'" she said. "I asked her when was the last time you had meat? She said, 'months.'''

Moran applied for and received for a $5,000 grant from the United Way and recruited union workers to help transform a dilapidated building on the Uncas on Thames campus in Norwich into a warehouse. She went to local companies "begging" for supplies and started distributing food to five or six local pantries. The program later moved into a building on the grounds of Norwich State Hospital.

The need to help fill people's bellies never receded, and the food center in 1999 moved into the New London warehouse where it's housed today. Moran said she resents the persistent belief that the food center was established to assist striking workers. Its purpose was to help any workers, she said, along with people who don't have jobs.

"We would help by setting an example," she said. "We'll give you food. We'll give you strength and send you along the way."

Those who need the help and receive it without judgment don't forget, according to Moran.

"A week ago in the Stop & Shop, a woman came up to me, hugged me and said, 'If it weren't for you, me and my three children would have gone hungry," she said.

The food center is run by a team of five United Way employees and a devoted corps of volunteers, according to Jennifer Blanco, feeding site and mobile good pantry manager. She said that since 2011, the center has made efforts to provide more produce and fresh meat. The food comes from many sources, including the Connecticut Food Bank, area retailers, food drives by churches, letter carriers, Boy Scouts and other organizations.

The Coogan Farm Nature & Heritage Center in Mystic supplies produce through the wintertime and area grocery stories donate their surplus items throughout the year. The community always responds generously when there's a shortage of a particular items, such as turkeys at Thanksgiving, Blanco said.

Last Friday afternoon, two of the people who have been working with Moran since the beginning of the food center were in the warehouse.

Sara Chaney, warehouse operations coordinator, is the woman who knows how to find homes for the food and non-food products that arrive in bulk at the warehouse and how to keep track of them. She worked as a clerk at Electric Boat and was a union official when she was told one day that "Gemma needed someone to help her do the paperwork."  She started working part time for the food center during a union strike and eventually joined the operation full time.

"Gemma invited me to be the godmother of her baby," Chaney said. "The deal was, I would do the inside work and she had the outside."

Elmer Taylor, 82, retired from Electric Boat, was one of the painters who helped open the first food center in Norwich. He's never stopped volunteering and has also recruited others to help. He helps out at food shows and when products are coming and going from the center.

"When we take a load and drop it off, you get a good feeling coming back," Taylor said.

IF YOU GO:

What: Gemma Moran United Way/Labor Food Center 30th anniversary Celebration and open house, including games, music, a cookout and tours.

Where: 374 Broad St., New London

When: Friday, Oct. 12, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Who: Speakers including Gemma Moran and Sara Chaney. Mashantucket Pequot Chairman Rodney Butler, who serves as chairman of the United Way board of directors, will host the event. Charter Oak Federal Credit Union is sponsoring the celebration so no donor dollars will be used.

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