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Many hands feed the hungry

New London — Two weeks before Christmas, staff and volunteers at the area food bank performed a nutritional ballet among the towering shelves of boxes and giant refrigerators and freezers in the Broad Street warehouse. 

Shirley Kutia and Nancy Jones, employees of Norwich Free Academy, leaned into giant cardboard boxes known as watermelon bins and plucked a healthy assortment of proteins, fruits and vegetables for 55 high school students. They looked for foods that would appeal to kids and could be prepared quickly.

Canned ravioli made the cut. Beets didn't.

Jones snagged a box of cupcakes, piped with red frosting for the holidays.

"We give out food bags at the end of every week so kids have food at home for the weekend," Kutia said. "A lot of people don't realize that school is where kids get their best meals."

Warehouseman Mark Higham retrieved 20 frozen turkeys — Electric Boat donated almost 2,000 holiday birds this year — and added them to the NFA shopping carts.

Tony Ribieri, also a warehouseman, weighed the boxes and made notes on an inventory form.

The Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Bank provided more than 1.8 million meals and snacks to people in need last year through its 79 distribution sites.

At the warehouse, ground zero for the operation, every morsel of food is accounted for. Each can is checked for dents, every cardboard box broken down and recycled. Even food that is not suitable for distribution is closely tracked, and much of it is donated to local pig farms.

Donations come from a variety of sources, from Coogan Farms in Mystic, whose owners grow produce specifically for the food bank, to the federal government, whose highly regulated emergency food program fills a row of shelves in the warehouse with staples such as Delmonte Green beans and Vine Ripe Tomato Sauce — regarded by food center staff as quality products.

Most of the product is free, though the agency does charge a small fee for items they have to purchase — such as produce — to provide recipients with a well-balanced diet. Sometimes the food center receives non-food products, such as cleaning supplies and end-of-season items, which are sold for pennies on the dollar.  

On an ordinary morning, Higham would be driving the food center's box truck, starting at 5 a.m., to local stores, including Target, Walmart, Big Y and Stop & Shop, to pick up surplus product. The box truck was broken down, though, and senior warehouseman Jack Hinds was on the phone with a rental company in between making sure the mobile food pantry truck was loaded.

Next up on the Wednesday morning shopping schedule, during which agencies have a half-hour to pick out food for their clients, were Tony Shabarekh and two others from the Salvation Army in New London. Their organization feeds 240 families a month — that's pounds and pounds of food— but Shabarekh helped Kutia and Jones load their groceries onto the NFA van before starting his tour of the watermelon bins.

Deliveries from a variety of sources, including the federal government, come into a receiving area at the back of the building, where they are unloaded, weighed, separated and sorted. With only seven staff members, the food center relies on volunteers who never let them down.

"You'll come back here and say, 'How are we ever going to sort through all this?'" said Dina Sears-Graves, who oversees the warehouse operation.

But within no time, the product finds its way to the shopping floor and Sears-Graves is worrying that the inventory is low.

"Between our outside shoppers, our donors and our volunteers, we're all dancing together," Hinds said. "I love dealing with the new faces. Whenever someone is volunteering, it's out of the goodness of their heart, so that's a good sign."

In a side space known as the "salvage room," volunteer coordinator Lamar Spruill worked with a team of Wednesday morning regulars to break down pallets of store donations described by their warehouse code as "10500s."

Items are separated and made suitable for display on the shopping floor. Proteins such as tuna go into a bin with like products, as do vegetables, pastas and drinks.

Janet Ballestrini, a retiree who has been volunteering for three years, said people who donate food need to check expiration dates and only give away food that they would want to eat themselves.  

Volunteer Maria Loss said she loves working with the fresh produce in the summer, but she isn't a big fan of the 50-pound bags of onions. 

"You're helping people who don't have anything," Loss said. "You have to stop and think of how blessed you are to have what you have."


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