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In Pawcatuck, partnership provides food pantry clients with healthier choices

Stonington — When the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center’s food pantry returned to normal, pre-pandemic operations this week, it had more than ever to offer its clients.

It had new signage and other printed materials touting healthy food choices. It had staff and volunteers freshly trained by Hartford HealthCare dietitians.

“Up until today, we’d been leaving bags of food for curbside pickup. Today, we’ve reopened,” Susan Sedensky, the center’s executive director, said Tuesday. “Once again, people can come in and pick out on what they want.”

And increasingly, she said, what they want is nutritional food that suits their particular needs.

Amid the pandemic, Sedensky set about satisfying that desire, meeting months ago with Joe Zuzel, manager of community health for Hartford HealthCare’s East Region, who had a similar interest in improving the food bank’s services. Both saw the value in educating the center’s clients about food choices, ultimately improving their overall health and lessening their reliance on the health care system.

Zuzel arranged for dietitians from Backus Hospital in Norwich to train the center’s staff and the volunteers who work there in preparing food boxes for those with specific dietary requirements.

“You can put a lot of information in those boxes, too,” Zuzel said.

Indeed, the center’s “nutrition tip cards” offer advice for clients with heart conditions, kidney disease and diabetes. The “Heart Healthy” card, for example, advises those with cardiac issues to consider choosing such foods as fat-free and 1% milk, low-fat yogurt, lean cuts of beef, skinless poultry and fish, plant-based proteins (beans, unsalted nuts, seeds, tofu) and “ALL” fresh or frozen vegetables and fruit.

“It’s our hope to reduce individual trips to doctor’s offices and hospital readmission rates,” Zuzel said.

Donna Handley, the East Region vice president who leads Backus, said the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center program reflects a national trend that Hartford HealthCare hopes to replicate at other food pantries in the region.

“More and more health care is being delivered in the community, with less focus on acute care,” she said. “What impressed me about Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center is the sense of pride the staff, the volunteers take in creating these food boxes. It’s all about building relationships.”

The center, which serves residents of Stonington, North Stonington and Westerly, as well as the homeless, served some 1,500 families last year, a substantial increase over previous years due to the pandemic, Sedensky said.

"We saw some people we’d never seen before," she said. "Some had never been in a food pantry."

Each client is entitled to 35 pounds of food per week, plus unlimited bread and produce. The center is supported by local grocery stores and accepts donations. It also grows some 2,000 pounds of vegetables annually in its own community garden, all of which it distributes to clients. On Tuesday, asparagus, beets, eggplant, beans and potatoes were growing.

“We always ask for donations of soup, SPAM and clam chowder,” Sedensky said. “We go out and buy eggs, milk, yogurt ...”

Every Friday, the center prepares “Weekender Backpacks” full of two days’ supply of food for children eligible for free and reduced-price school lunches.

The backpacks, too, are being prepared with the center’s new emphasis on healthy choices in mind, Sedensky said.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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