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Mobile food pantries, drive-thru food sites extended as need remains high

With schools and businesses reopened and the job market recovering from last year's coronavirus shutdowns, temporary emergency food pantries in the region were supposed to wind down and end by this fall.

But demand remains high for free food distributions, organizers said.

A Monday weekly drive-thru distribution, sponsored by Connecticut Foodshare, continues to hand out about 1,000 boxes of food per week. A new United Way mobile food pantry in Griswold exhausted its supplies, as well.

CT Foodshare announced last week that new state funding will allow weekly food distributions in Norwich and other cities to continue through October. And a weekly walk-up site in New London now is planned to be permanent.

The Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center launched five new monthly food pantries in Norwich, New London, Groton, Stonington and Griswold in September and October.

Dina Sears-Graves, United Way president and CEO, said demand for food is not the same as early in the pandemic, when hundreds of residents were thrown out of work in March 2020. But even as people have returned to work, many have outstanding bills, depleted savings and continuing financial worries.

“Some are still catching up on bills,” Sears-Graves said, “so getting help with food eases costs to help with the other bills. And with the cost of food going up, if they can get the food free, that enables them to get their prescriptions and pay their other bills that come up.”

“We saw the sign and decided to stop by,” Carol Eduardo Diaz of New London said as she awaited a United Way food box at the first mobile food pantry at Jennings School last Wednesday. Eduardo Diaz has two children, ages 7 and 4. “It helps us a lot,” she said.

Shaundolyn Ortiz pulled up with her daughter, Lily Dawn Swain. Ortiz came to the school to pick up Lily and saw the sandwich-board sign announcing the food pantry. She asked for extra boxes for her neighbors, because she said many people probably did not know about the new food pantry. She thanked United Way for realizing that people like her are still in need of food help.

“United Way has helped me with other things in my life,” Ortiz said. “It really helps. I just got a new job, and now I don’t qualify for food assistance. But I still have needs.”

In just over an hour, volunteers had loaded 148 boxes into cars at Jennings school last Wednesday.

“The numbers at the weekly distributions are not as high as they were in the peak of COVID,” CT Foodshare President and CEO Jason Jakubowski said. “But they’re also not down to pre-COVID numbers.”

CT Foodshare — a recent merger of Connecticut Food Bank and FoodShare — did not run emergency weekly food sites before the COVID-19 pandemic. The entities instead had supplied food to dozens of food pantries and meal sites throughout the state. Jakubowski said the agency hopes to get back to that.

The CT Foodshare weekly emergency drives, such as the Norwich site, which runs from 9 a.m. to noon on Mondays at the former Foxwoods employee parking lot at 28 Stonington Road-Route 2, had been slated to end in early summer, again in August and in September. But with 1,000 boxes being loaded into cars each week, CT Foodshare will continue through October.

The emergency weekly distributions got their latest funding boost from the state last week. On Wednesday, Gov. Ned Lamont announced that nearly $10 million of the state’s federal American Rescue Plan grant dollars will be allocated to support Connecticut dairy and agriculture industries hurt by the pandemic.

CT Foodshare will receive $800,000 per month for September and October to purchase fresh produce and dairy products to continue the weekly food sites through October. Jakubowski said 80% of the food distributed will be purchased from Connecticut farmers, including fresh produce, eggs and dairy products. He said the agency has not been able to purchase much meat lately, and donations of meat have been low.

“The people are extremely grateful,” said Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom, who volunteers at the Norwich food site each week. “The last two Mondays, we were wiped out by 11:30. The need is there. It’s not going away, and with heating bills coming on, we really need this service.”

But Jakubowski warned that October likely would be the last month for the drive-thru service in Norwich and other cities outside this region. “These are scheduled to end at the end of October,” he said. “I don’t believe there will be additional funding. We strongly encourage people to get connected with their local food pantries.”

After that, Foodshare will start working on its annual holiday season food drives and collection of thousands of turkeys to help families with holiday meals, Jakubowski said.

CT Foodshare's weekly food pantry in New London, however, will not end anytime soon. Started in January as an emergency weekly distribution, the walk-up food pantry held from 2:30 to 4 p.m. Fridays at St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Church at 10 Huntington St., is now permanent, Jakubowski said. That site is funded directly through donations to CT Foodshare.

“We’re glad we’re able to keep that going,” he said of the New London site. “It’s not the same volume (as drive-thru sites). We initially thought the New London site would be emergency drive-thru, but it works as a permanent walk-up site.”

At the United Way food pantries, volunteers hand-pack boxes with canned and boxed dry goods donated and purchased by the United Way food center, along with frozen meat, produce and dairy products. The boxes vary each week, depending on supplies at the food center, United Way CEO Sears-Graves said.

Sears-Graves said the pandemic has hurt community food drives and donations to the food center. Scout troops, schools and businesses had run regular food drives to stock the shelves. Food drives are “very slowly” coming back, she said. Cash donations for the food center can be made through the United Way of Southeastern Connecticut website, www.uwsect.org.

The food center welcomes groups to sponsor mobile food pantries, as well. Two upcoming Groton food pantries are being sponsored by Groton Utilities. Any town interested in hosting a mobile food pantry should contact United Way.

Volunteers are needed to help pack the boxes at the food center and place them in cars at food pantry sites.

Anyone interested in holding a food drive, hosting a food pantry or volunteering for the food distributions should contact Scott Umbel, United Way vice president of community impact, at (860) 464-3321.

c.bessette@theday.com

Volunteers James Vallario, right, of New London and Lucia Vasquez, center, visiting from Tennessee, gather food boxes to load in vehicles with fellow volunteer Tom Cavanaugh, left, of Waterford, standing by to help during the weekly food distribution Friday, Oct. 1, 2021, at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in New London.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Volunteers James Vallario, right, of New London and Lucia Vasquez, center, visiting from Tennessee, gather food boxes to load in vehicles with fellow volunteer Tom Cavanaugh, left, of Waterford, standing by to help during the weekly food distribution Friday, Oct. 1, 2021, at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

Upcoming food distribution schedule

United Way mobile food pantries will be held:

• Wednesday, Oct. 6, from 5 to 6 p.m. at Stonington High School, 176 S. Broad St., Pawcatuck

• Wednesday, Oct. 13, from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. at Wequonnoc School, 155 Providence St., Taftville

• Thursday, Oct. 21, from 4 to 5:30 p.m. at Griswold Senior Center, 22 Soule St., Griswold

• Friday, Oct. 22, from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. at Johns Christian Church, 346 Shennecossett Road, Groton 

• Wednesday, Oct. 27, from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. at Jennings Elementary School, 50 Mercer St., New London.

CT Foodshare weekly distribution sites:

• Mondays through October, 9 a.m. to noon, drive-thru distribution, 28 Stonington Road-Route 2, Norwich.

• Fridays, 2:30 to 4 p.m., St. Mary's Star of the Sea Church, 10 Huntington St., New London.

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