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United Way suspends mobile food pantry sites

Amid concerns about providing adequate social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic, the United Way of Southeastern Connecticut has suspended its mobile food pantries sites “until further notice.”

 In the announcement, the United Way said it “had amazing staff and volunteer support over the last couple of weeks” and tripled the number of people served.

“However, it requires a significant number of volunteers to pre-bag all of the food and even more to distribute it efficiently,” the announcement said. “These large groups of volunteers are now a huge safety concern, making social distancing nearly impossible both in the Food Bank and at the Mobile sites.”

The 10 mobile sites, hosted in Norwich, Groton, New London, Colchester, Salem, Jewett City, and Stonington, provide perishable items – such as fresh fruits and vegetables -- to supplement food pantries, said Vice President of Community Impact Dina Sears-Graves. 

She said the suspension was a very difficult decision, but one made out of concern for the safety of volunteers, staff and clients.

“We did not make this decision lightly at all,” she said.

But she said, people will still have access to the network of 66 food pantries and emergency sites. The United Way also has put out a call for organizations and municipalities to temporarily host food distribution sites for the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Bank. People can drop off nonperishable food at the Gemma Moran center in New London.

So far, United Way has received six applications. Salem First Selectman Kevin Lyden said he has applied so there can be a site in town to serve residents.

New London Mayor Michael Passero said it was disappointing to hear about the suspension of the mobile food pantry operation. But he said the United Way has a good system in place for distributing the food, with satellite food distribution sites in the city and the region, and will be strengthening that food delivery system.

But he said it will be a challenge, noting that there are many more people in need now.

“The United Way is our great partner in helping us get through this,” he added. “People need to remain calm. We will make sure that nobody goes without food.”

Groton Human Services Director Marge Fondulas said the mobile food pantry provided an invaluable source of fresh fruit and vegetables.

She said Groton residents will still have access to non-perishable items from the Groton Food Locker. In addition, Groton Human Services has been giving out donated gift cards to grocery stores so people can buy fresh vegetables and other items.

She said so far Groton has seen a steady flow of people, of up to 20 households a day, but not overwhelming numbers. People are asked to call ahead to make appointments.

“We are anticipating that the need will be increasing,” she said.

People wishing to make donations can mail checks to Groton Human Services, 2 Fort Hill Road, Groton, CT 06340 or they can drop off donations of non-perishable food, cash, checks or grocery store gift cards. Groton Human services can accept the donations Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

In Norwich, The United Way mobile food pantry visited Wequonnoc School in Taftville, the Norwich Free Academy Sachem Street campus and Three Rivers Community College.

“They feel awful,” Norwich Human Services Director Lee-Ann Gomes said of United Way’s decision to suspend the mobile food pantries. “They tried really hard to have people keep their social distancing. There were too many people, and they needed so many volunteers and the volunteers couldn’t socially distance.”

Gomes said several local food pantries remain in operation, some with limited hours and supplies. She said SNAP is increasing benefits, and Norwich is looking at other resources in the community. The city's Human Services Department is accepting donations of grocery gift cards for families in need and is taking cash donations to provide grocery gift cards. City Hall is closed during the COVID-19 emergency, but grocery gift cards can be dropped off at the entrance. Grocery gift cards and checks may be sent to Norwich Human Services, 100 Broadway, Norwich, CT 06360.

Stonington Human Services Director Leanne Theodore said resources are available for people in the community to tap into, from Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center to Meals on Wheels.

The United Way reached out to Waterford Monday with the hope of establishing a temporary partnership.

“We will do whatever we can to support our community,” said Dani Gorman, Waterford Youth and Family Services director. Food can be donated at the Youth and Family Services office at 200 Boston Post Road from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays.

Waterford expanded its Inter-Faith Food Locker operations "to ensure that the needs of our residents are met while at the same time implementing increased safety protocols in the distribution of groceries and the receipt of donations,” Gorman said.

Its “grab and go” food distribution takes place each Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 200 Boston Post Road. Residents are asked to not leave their vehicles. Food will be placed in their vehicles.

Day staff writer Claire Bessette contributed to this report.

k.drelich@theday.com

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