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COVID-19 highlights food insecurity in the region

New London — It’s early on a Friday morning and the main gathering room at the New London Senior Center is abuzz with activity. A group of volunteers is furiously sorting through food that covers tables stretching the length of the room.

The senior center has been shut down throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and the gathering space once used for things like bingo and yoga is transformed to accommodate the once-weekly headquarters of a mutual aid program some are calling “Food for the People Delivery Pantry Program.”

It doesn’t really have a formal name and it doesn’t advertise. But the collaborative effort to supply food to some of the city’s most vulnerable residents, much of it delivered to front doors, has spread by word-of-mouth and continues to grow.

Food insecurity has risen significantly since the coronavirus pandemic struck a year ago and this is one of numerous local efforts to reach people in need.

People already feeling economic strains were pushed over the edge as unemployment rates soared, school-age children were sent home and many people remained homebound. Church, civic organizations, schools, human services departments and individuals have joined the effort to get food out. The program is modeled in ways after a New London school district effort in the early days of the pandemic to deliver meals to school families.

“We are trying to reach those facing barriers to the emergency food system,” said Alicia McAvay, the director of Fresh New London, an organization that typically grows food but has enlisted its employees in this distribution effort.

“What we really want is for folks to be able to access food with dignity. We don’t want people to feel embarrassed,” she said. “There is a lot of need and a delivery program can really make a difference.”

McAvay is part of the coordinating team for the Health Improvement Collaborative of Southeastern Connecticut that formally started the effort back in April. Prior to that, McAvay said her organization had partnered with Ledge Light Health District, Step Up New London, St. Francis House, the Hispanic Alliance and Hearing Youth Voices.

Other examples of the collaborative efforts include the weekly food distributions performed in Norwich and New London by Connecticut Food Bank/Food Share. The Whalers Helping Whalers initiative headed by Thomas “Chef Tomm” Johnson has found a home at the New London Lodge of Elks, where meals are being prepared for distribution across the city. Pop-up food distribution events have appeared in the region thanks to the work of Ruben Johnson-Santiago.

On this Friday, New London City Works employees have arrived with a flatbed truck at the front entrance to the senior center and are helping to offload boxes of food onto hand trucks to be wheeled inside. There are rows of frozen turkeys and gallons of milk, meat, fresh produce, boxes of macaroni and cheese, rice and a variety of other foods being organized into different sized boxes that fit the size of the household where they will be delivered.

The senior center van is ready to be loaded and volunteer delivery drivers, including some students from Connecticut College, will head out shortly on predetermined routes with lists of addresses.

Nicia Allred, a community organizer with Fresh New London, joins the effort to haul boxes inside.

“I think it’s amazing. Fridays are my favorite days for this reason. It’s so incredibly impactful,” Allred said.

Esther Pendola, the health project coordinator for Lawrence + Memorial, is the lead organizer and logistics manager in the effort. She estimates the program is reaching 800 people a week, with dozens of families on this day’s deliver list. The numbers increase every month.

“We started small. It’s kind of exploded. It’s a big operation and because we don’t have a permanent home we get everything in and out in one day,” she said.

Pendola is on the phone outside the New London Senior Center organizing pickup of a unexpected food donation from the nearby St. James Episcopal Church. The food going out is coming from a variety of sources such as the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Bank in New London and US Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families program.

“It’s my favorite part of my job right now. It’s something tangible you can do to improve the situation,” Pendola said.

No one is turned away.

“We don’t ask about income or anything like that. We don’t want people to think they have to qualify. If you need food, you need food,” Esther said.

Feeding America, the nations largest hunger relief organization, reports that racial disparities in food insecurity that existed before the pandemic have been amplified. Feeding America estimates that 1 in 5 Black individuals and 1 in 6 Latino individuals may experience food insecurity in 2021 compared to 1 in 9 white individuals.

In line with the national trend, food insecurity in New London County has risen by an estimated 36%. Unemployment is up. Families are making decisions about utility bills versus grocery shopping. There are disabled, elderly and families homeschooling kids with no transportation, people in quarantine or with other barriers that prevent them from getting to the grocery store.

Lizbeth Polo-Smith was laid off from Mohegan Sun early in the pandemic and now works with Fresh New London and performs community outreach for Ledge Light Health District, specifically with the Spanish speaking population.

People perk up when she speaks in their language, offering help with food and information on getting a vaccine.

“You cannot imagine. Sometimes I cry,” Polo-Smith said of the need. “I spoke to one woman who said she can eat rice and beans, but her children need milk.”

Translating for 78-year-old food recipient Jose Rios, Polo-Smith said “I feel blessed and the organization helped me 100% because sometimes I cannot go out. I’m old.”

New London Human Services Director Jeanne Millstein said the effort by this group and other initiatives happening in the city should be a model for others. The city’s part in the effort includes use of the senior center, Public Works employees and trucks and the senior center van and driver.

“It’s just been a fantastic partnership,” Millstein said. “It’s devastating. The need just grows and grows and grows.”

When asked how long this particular effort might last, Pendola said the efforts thus far are only limited by the number of volunteers who step forward.

“Nobody wants to stop. You realize how important the work is,” Pendola said.

A list of community meal sites can be found on the United Way website.

G.smith@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the name of the Ledge Light Health District Medical Reserve Corps in a photo caption.

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