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Long lines for first weekly food distribution event in Norwich

Norwich — Vehicles snaked along the entire perimeter of a former 33-acre Foxwoods employee parking lot and backed up onto Route 2 Monday morning for the start of the first weekly Connecticut Food Bank/Foodshare food distribution here. 

Organizers and volunteers arrived at 7 a.m. to set up for the planned 9:30 a.m. start, but with vehicles already in line, they opened the distribution lines an hour early and kept it open through the noon closing time. Lines eased up by about 11 a.m. but picked up again in the final hour. No one counted, but organizers had 40,000 pounds of food on hand to distribute to about 1,500 families. Leftovers were repacked into the Connecticut Food Bank trucks for the next distribution site.

While designated as a drive-thru distribution, Shawn Fleck, 49, walked 35 to 40 minutes from his home in Greeneville pulling a small wagon. Police directed him to the front of the line so he wouldn't have to walk the parking lot perimeter with the vehicles.

"This helps me tremendously," Fleck, who is on disability, said about the food distribution. "You wouldn't even understand how much. I want to thank everybody for doing this."

Next Monday, the food distribution will run from 9 a.m. to noon, Mayor Peter Nystrom said.

Police and traffic volunteers directed drivers along the edge of the giant parking lot and back toward the front, where the line was split along the sides of the food stations in the center. Volunteers grabbed bags of apples at one station, bottles of vitamin water at another, half gallons of milk, packages of frozen ground turkey, bags of potatoes, cans of ravioli and soup, bags of lentils and rice and packages of fruit snacks at other stations. The food was placed directly into trunks, rear seats and hatches as the vehicles were directed to keep moving forward slowly.

Drivers shouted, “thank you!” multiple times, and volunteers waved and returned greetings as they grabbed items for the next vehicles.

“You’ve got a pretty buoyant crew here,” volunteer Mike Kennedy of Groton said.

Kennedy, who is retired, said he read a news story last week that the Norwich food distribution needed volunteers and responded.

“I had nothing to do, and they needed help,” he said.

Nystrom had put out a call for about 40 volunteers to run the 2 1/2-hour distribution, and about 45 signed up or showed up Monday. Some directed traffic, while others loaded cars, and a person at the final stop closed car doors or trunks to send recipients on their way. Anyone wishing to volunteer for future distributions in Norwich should call the city Human Services Department at (860) 823-3778 or the mayor’s office at (860) 823-3743.

Nystrom thanked Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, for allowing the food distribution at the Foxwoods lot. Nystrom said the parking lot might be difficult for some people to access, but it is the best location in the city for the weekly distribution. Nystrom said one driver was picking up food for four families who couldn’t get to the site, and volunteers loaded the vehicle with extra shares.

“This is fantastic,” said Jason Jakubowski, president and CEO of the merging Connecticut Food Bank/Foodshare. “I’m amazed at the number of volunteers.”

Jakubowski said it takes at least 30 volunteers to run an event such as Monday’s Norwich distribution. He thanked Norwich police, city government and private nonprofit agencies for helping to organize and staff the event.

Food Bank and Foodshare expanded their weekly food distributions to include New London on Fridays, from 2:30 to 4 p.m. at St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Church, 10 Huntington St., and Norwich this month and holds weekly distributions on Tuesdays at Rentschler Field in East Hartford and Thursdays in Norwalk.

Jakubowski said the organizations run additional smaller food distribution programs and have increased the supplies distributed to partner food pantries and programs. They also are looking for other possible sites.

"We're responding to the economic impact of the coronavirus," Jakubowski said. "So many people have been hurt."

c.bessette@theday.com

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