By JANE LATUS
Michael Olivieri and one of his Gifts of Love volunteers fill two vans with free groceries at Whole Foods, food that was about to be thrown out. In addition to cereal, coffee, chips and other shelf items, the vans were loaded with 115 pounds of frozen chicken, burgers and hot dogs at their use-by date.
“It will be perfectly fine for up to six months in the freezer,” said Olivieri. “We grab it and give it to our clients, who appreciate it and desperately need it.”
To state the ought-to-be obvious, just because Connecticut is the third wealthiest state in the nation doesn’t mean all its residents are well-fed. Still, the number of people at risk of going hungry is startling. Twelve percent of the population—425,000 people—are food-insecure, according to Connecticut Foodshare. That number is down from the pandemic peak of 580,000, but not back to the pre-pandemic level of 350,000.
“The good news is it’s moving in the right direction. The bad news is there’s a long way to go,” said Jason Jakubowski, Connecticut Foodshare’s president and CEO. Connecticut Foodshare distributes 50 million meals a year through more than 600 food pantries and food programs.
Some food banks aren’t seeing numbers drop at all, especially with inflation contributing to the lingering effects of the pandemic.
“With supply chain issues, the cost of food, the cost of gas, we’ve seen a huge increase in need,” mentioned Olivieri, the food pantry coordinator for Gifts of Love in Avon and Hartford.
“I thought when the crisis went away, the number of families we serve would go down, but it didn’t. We’re still serving 1,000 people,” stated Jill Meyerhoff, executive director of FISH of Greater New Haven (Food in Service to the Homebound). FISH delivers meals to 1,000 homebound people.
What Food Banks Wish We Knew
Food bank organizers say there’s one thing they wish everyone knew about food insecurity in Connecticut: the need is there 365 days a year. Summer is probably the most difficult time, said Jakubowski. One reason is because children aren’t in school, where they get one to three free meals a day and can get food to take home for the weekend. He added that every year during the holidays they remind people of the year-round need for food.
Jakubowski also reiterated to people that, in an instant, anyone might need help. During the pandemic, they saw a lot of people with five- or six-figure jobs who never thought they’d lose their jobs. At Connecticut Foodshare’s large food giveaway events during the pandemic, 73% of recipients said it was their first time receiving help.
There are concrete ways to help: volunteers are always needed, money is essential, and cash donations accomplish more than food donations. Food banks’ purchasing power goes further, and, with cash, pantries can purchase what they most need.
But the best way to help, said Olivieri, is simply to recognize the need. “The best thing we can do is take our blinders off. Be aware of it.”
Plenty of Food, Plenty of Waste
One third of food produced in the U.S. is wasted, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which sees food waste as an environmental issue because food is the largest item, by volume, thrown in landfills and contributes to 8% of human-created greenhouse emissions.
“We produce food not to feed people, but to make money,” Olivieri explained the root of the problem as he sees it. “There’s not a food shortage. There’s a distribution disconnection.”
The United Nations estimates that the amount of food wasted worldwide could feed one billion people.
This waste prompted Olivieri to start driving to several grocery stores with a handful of dedicated volunteers, doing what he calls “Retail Rescue.” As a result, they have saved over 24,000 pounds of food from going into the landfill only eight months in after starting the effort this March.
California requires grocery stores to donate food to food banks that they would otherwise throw away. The store may have mistakenly ordered something they don’t carry, have been delivered too many items, food may have reached its expiration date but still be consumable, or produce may just look funny so it won’t sell.
Another flaw in the distribution line is “food deserts,” or areas without grocery stores—a well-known problem in cities but also a rural problem.
A Wild Pandemic Ride
By all accounts, the effects from the pandemic threw a “monkey wrench” into food bank operations with needs skyrocketing. At some banks, volunteers disappeared while others had them showing up in droves. Grants and government aid kept food banks going. Even though donations increased, the money flew in and right back out again. Currently, need remains high but the government aid has gone away.
Connecticut Foodshare lost a lot of volunteers, said Jakubowski, especially seniors who feared catching COVID-19. Also, corporations that usually send teams of volunteers had their employees working from home. The food bank had to hire part-time staff.
It is no wonder they had to do so. For 16 months, every weekday, Connecticut Foodshare operated at least one large distribution event at up to 10 locations including Rentschler Field in East Hartford – where 2,800 people drove through in one day.
“We raised more than ever, but we spent more than ever,” commented Jakubowski, speaking about how donors showed up financially. “Without financial donations increasing, we would not have survived. Thankfully the people of the state stepped up in a huge way—corporations, philanthropic organizations, governments—everybody contributed. Now donations aren’t what they were at the peak of the pandemic, but we’ve been able to do our work because of our strong donor base.”
COVID-19-related government funding helped FISH of New Haven get through. But the problem is that when funding ended, the elevated needs were still there.
“As the COVID crisis diminished, a lot of funding went away. We were in a financial pickle at the beginning of this year. I thought when the crisis went away, the number of families we serve would go down, but it didn’t. We’re still serving the same 1,000 people,” said Meyerhoff. The budget is so tight that they can’t meet needs and have a waiting list. “The need is apparent. Our phone keeps ringing.”
Logistics, and Easing the Hurt of Asking
“It is a very complex logistical machine that we operate here to get food to all 169 towns in the state,” explained Jakubowski. Connecticut Foodshare is the main source of food for almost all the food banks in the state. The work involves 5,000 volunteers, 120 primarily full-time staff members, 18 trucks and three warehouses. Every day, the United Way works with Connecticut Foodshare to track where food banks are operating. People can call the United Way at 211 or go to the 211 website to find locations and hours.
Pantry organizers try their best to take away the sting of asking for help. For instance, when possible—except when COVID-19 interrupted and food had to be delivered curbside or to homes—most food banks allowed people to shop the pantry themselves, as they would a grocery store. Jakubowski said it felt significantly more dignified to do so.
Food programs are continually working to remove any perceived stigma. At Hands on Hartford’s new restaurant Gather55, people pay what they can or volunteer. Diners never know who paid how much. It has been such a huge success that the restaurant had to hit pause this fall, closing for several days to reorganize so it could meet the unanticipated demand.
Forge City Works is using a grant to found a pay-what-you-can grocery store in Hartford’s Frog Hollow neighborhood, which is expected to open in March 2023. Connecticut Foodshare considers it a pilot effort that will be duplicated.
Other pantries are making food more accessible. Person to Person in Stamford has a mobile pantry. Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen in New Haven just opened a second location.
“It’s not easy for a nonprofit to acquire a new location,” Jakubowksi voiced.
Filling Niches of Need
Gifts of Love’s specialty is helping people who are temporarily struggling, or who work part-time or at minimum wage. A food pantry is only part of its service. It also provides clothing and household items, serving 300 clients a month.
Children are another group that some banks focus on. Filling in the Blanks in Norwalk sends food home each weekend to 4,000 children, via 90 schools, after-school programs and housing authorities in Fairfield County and Westchester County. Founders Shawnee Knight and Tina Kramer said people are astonished to hear how many children in these supposedly wealthy towns are at risk of going hungry. They knew the need existed when they started the organization in 2013, using their own cars to shop for 50 kids.
When COVID-19 arrived, they added seven schools to their service in the first month. When schools closed, they switched to distributing at dozens of grab-and-go sites. They also started a senior program because many seniors were taking care of their grandchildren. Fortunately, they stated, volunteers were banging on their door during the pandemic. A thousand volunteers—half of them teenagers—work in the warehouse and assemble the food packages.
Gifts of Love also has a backpack program, sending over 300 backpacks to schools in the Farmington Valley. Each bag has enough to feed a family of four for a weekend.
College students are another demographic at risk of hunger. A third of college students are food insecure; during the pandemic, 52% used food banks, according to Swipe Out Hunger, an alliance of about 800 college food banks. The group helps colleges open food banks and implement policies to prevent waste, such as programs that allow students to donate unused meal plan dollars.
More Connecticut colleges are starting food banks. Most recently, University of Hartford opened The Nosh food pantry in October. Goodwin University and Central Connecticut State University also have food pantries.
LGBTQ nonprofits around the state expanded or started food banks during the pandemic. The Triangle Community Center in Norwalk and the New Haven Pride Center operate them. The Gay & Lesbian Health Collective in Hartford has for decades offered free lunches to 350-400 people living with HIV/AIDS, although temporarily during the pandemic, in-person meals were switched to boxed lunches.
Seniors comprise most of the clients of FISH. Meyerhoff joined as executive director at a time of huge change: at the start of the pandemic, when precautions were making it hard for the city’s food banks to meet rising need. FISH doubled its workload by taking over the operations of the Pantry to Pantry program (as in, “from our pantry to yours”). Pre-pandemic, FISH served 500 households; it now serves 1,000. FISH is lucky to have plenty of volunteers, including families, high school students and retirees, said Meyerhoff. Volunteers sort food, pack deliveries and drive them to clients’ homes. FISH moved to a larger warehouse during the pandemic and increased its staff from one full-time and one part-time employee to six employees.
Many other food banks have senior programs. At Gifts of Love, seniors can come in once a month for food, and volunteers also deliver to subsidized housing units. “We put out the word that if you’re a senior, we will help,” said Olivieri.