Free Store Connecticut gives food without judgment

Montville — A group of volunteers staged a pop-up food giveaway event at Town Hall on Sunday afternoon, providing more than 50 people with bread, fruit, vegetables, blankets and other items.

It was the latest effort by Ellen Hillman, co-founder of Free Store Connecticut, a grassroots charity, to confront hunger in the region.

The charity operates roadside stands in Groton at 100 New London Road from April to November and Hillman's home at 229 Route 163 in Uncasville year-round. Pop-ups and other scheduled food giveaways supplement the stands. The next pop-up is scheduled March 29 from 1 to 2 p.m. on the Lebanon Town Green.

Free Store Connecticut was founded by Hillman, a former Montville town councilor, and Serena Rice, also of Montville. The charity was born after Hillman noticed a food pantry she worked at in Old Lyme disposed of leftover meat and produce. She wanted to get the excess food to those who needed it.

Rice, another long-time food pantry volunteer, and Hillman met at a local canning event for preserving produce before it spoils. Rice is no longer involved in Free Store Connecticut due to a career change.

On Sunday, dozens of people waited in line while volunteers arranged different types of bread, muffins, frozen food, drinks, onions, potatoes, peas, beans, fruit, blankets, gloves and other types of food/items into a line of boxes. No one is asked to provide proof of need.   

People sorted through the bounty, filling bags they brought. Hillman said she thought around 25 of the those who came on Sunday were first-timers, while others were familiar faces.

Pat Buchert, and her granddaughter Maranda Musto, said they found out about Free Store Connecticut via Facebook and have been coming to its pop-ups and roadside locations for about a year now. They were looking for ingredients to use for cooking on St. Patrick's Day, and came away with some potatoes and other food. Buchert always snaps up any available soup.

Buchert said she is appreciative of Free Store Connecticut, but she noted some people take advantage of the charity at times. 

"I think this is very helpful for people, except I don't think people need to take three or four bags," Buchert said. "This is here to help everyone, not just you."

Food and supplies come from a bevy of partnerships Free Store Connecticut has formed since its inception in 2015. Hillman's community connections, and news spreading via word-of-mouth and Facebook, bring in numerous private donations, while businesses and organizations such as Panera Bread, Stop & Shop, Shop Rite, Backus Health Care, Norwich's Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, area farms and other sources also contribute.

Hillman and her cohort give misfit food, such as tiny or massive eggs or misshapen vegetables, a purpose. Volunteers use their own cars to transport food. Before anything is offered, it's inspected to make certain it's worthy of consumption.

On Sunday, Hillman would occasionally tell patrons creative ways to prepare the food they had picked out.

"I can take a loaf of Italian bread and put it in a pan and pour milk and vanilla and eggs over it and make French toast," she said. "There's so much you can do with stuff that would normally be thrown out, but people don't have the knowledge to get creative with it."

Free Store Connecticut has faced challenges. Hillman said, for example, that Uncas Health District tried to "shut us down." She said the health district gave the charity a waiver to use canned goods, but expressed concern about issues such as possible listeria in lettuce. She said items like lettuce are washed with vinegar to destroy bacteria.

Eventually, "We hired an attorney, and they stopped," she added.

Fellowship and trust

Hillman and the rest of the organization adhere to a credo of acceptance: "We ask no questions. We don't judge anybody as to whether they need it or not. We just give, we never know what somebody is going through."

People can take as much as they want, so there is sometimes consternation over who collects what and how much they end up with. Hillman has seen and heard enough in her years combatting hunger to know outward appearances are unreliable indicators of people's lives.

At one event, a man pulled up in a van with his wife and asked, "Is this really free food?" The volunteers said "yes" and encouraged him to take more, since they'd only be there another 15 minutes.

"He started to cry, and I said, 'What's the matter?'" Hillman recalled.

The man told her "Everything we own is in the van, we've lost our house, we sleep in the van, we only have my disability check that we live on, and it's not enough for us to afford an apartment."

He asked if he could kiss Hillman's hand, and she said "yes," and when he did, she started crying.

"He was a Vietnam veteran, he had two prosthetic legs, and he took off one of his legs and got down on his knee and kissed my hand," Hillman said. "I started to bawl."

Hillman relayed another story of a man who would come to her roadside table and "emptied out every ounce of bread there" even though he could take other items. 

Then he told her about how, when he was young, his father would punish him by sending him to his room without dinner. His mother would sneak him up a hunk of bread and glass of water.

"If there wasn't money for bread, he wouldn't eat," Hillman said. "He's got a whole chest freezer full of bread because his biggest fear is he's not going to have bread."

Hillman told of a woman who came to her Free Store table in a brand-new Volvo. Her son got out of the car dressed in nice Nike clothes. They had been coming every week: They would open the trunk of the car and "completely empty my table," according to Hillman. After several months, she came down and told them that other people needed to eat. The son cussed at her, but the mother pulled her aside and said her son is a heroin addict.

"'If I don't get him food, he won't eat,'" the woman told Hillman. "'He's been in and out of detox eight times; I have to have faith that one more time might work. If I don't give him food, this is what he does.' She pulled her sweater off to the side, and she was all black and blue, and I thought, 'That's it, I'm never going to judge anybody ever again as to whether they can afford to eat or not.'"

Sandy Truex, who's been volunteering with Free Store Connecticut for about five years, makes food for Free Store. She is also in a group of three at the Chesterfield Fire House that makes blankets to hand out.

"I've been a volunteer at Chesterfield Fire Department for a long time," Truex said of her volunteer and charity work. "We do an annual toy drive for social services here in Montville, too. I guess it's just part of my personality — I like to be able to give back to people that need it. I had help when I needed it."

For Hillman's part, Free Store Connecticut comes from a compassionate and practical place.

"We live in the wealthiest state in the Union and the wealthiest country in the world; there is no reason that any child or person should go hungry, ever," Hillman said.

s.spinella@theday.com

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