Thursday, June 17, 2010

Connecticut Food Bank, East Haven, CT

Our last trip in June 2010 was to the Connecticut Food Bank, the larger of 2 food banks serving the state.  The CT Food Bank serves a huge number of separate organizations (650).  The largest percentage is food pantries (41%), followed by residential programs (18%), programs for children (13%), soup kitchens (11%), and emergency shelters and adult day programs (9%).  CEO Nancy Carrington, who has been with the CT Food Bank for 26 years, graciously detailed how the food bank operates and gave us a tour of their spotless and orderly main facility. 

We were especially interested in some of the changes Nancy saw occurring:
  • The food bank is outgrowing its present space as the need for emergency food increases.
  • The proportion of food coming to the food bank from grocery stores or food manufacturers is decreasing because the food industry is becoming much better at minimizing waste and producing or ordering only what’s needed.  Thus, the proportion coming from the federal government commodities program is increasing.
  • The CT Food Bank is working to find new ways to get food to those who need it.  For example, they run a BackPack program to give kid-friendly nutritious food to 1200 food insecure kids when they leave school on Friday.  Packs include foods like Cheerios, milk, fruit, beans & franks, etc., all in shelf-stable single-serving packages that the kids can eat without adult assistance.
  • There is more of a push to include fresh produce among the foods supplied to client programs.  It’s very challenging to pick up donated fresh produce from the grocery stores or other sources and get it to the client programs undamaged and before it spoils.  Many programs don’t have refrigerator or freezer facilities, they may not have appropriate vehicles to transport fresh produce, and they may only be open once a week or even less frequently.
  • The need for emergency food is increasing in certain areas with few food pantries.  So the CT Food Bank has started mobile food pantries to supply primarily fresh foods.  They’re awaiting a new truck that they’ve purchased with federal stimulus money; this truck will be specially configured with doors on the sides to make it work well as a mobile pantry.
The next day, we volunteered at a mobile food pantry in Wauregan, CT.  It was held in the large parking lot of the Central Assembly of God church.  The truck arrived at 10:00.  We helped about 12 volunteers from the church and the community set up a long row of tables, repackage zucchini, broccoli, and apples into individual bags, and set all the food out for the pantry guests.  Other food available included vegetarian kabobs, carrots, potatoes, yogurt, fruit drink, and a large selection of breads.  Guests began arriving at 10:30.  After the volunteers had been instructed on how to serve the guests, the pantry opened at 11:00.  Each guest signed in and proceeded down the line as a volunteer offered them each item.  By 12:00 when the pantry closed, most of the food was gone.
This was the third time the pantry had been held at this location.  The first month about 35 families were served, the second month over 50, and this time 81 families went home with a much-needed supply of nutritious food.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Open Table of Christ, Providence, RI

During the second week in June, we were privileged to visit the Open Table of Christ United Methodist Church in Providence, RI. It occupies an aging facility (built in stages starting in 1895) located in the heart of an economically challenged and highly ethnically diverse area in Providence.

Open Table of Christ was formed in 2006 as a merger of two congregations. We met with Pastor Duane Clinker, who is leading the church toward a new vision of a radically open, multi-cultural, multi-racial community church with its center of gravity among the poor. Duane envisions the church as building community, being community.

At the time of the merger, the church housed and ran the 3rd largest food pantry in the state. Unfortunately, an undetected water leak caused a very bad mold problem, which ruined most of the stored food and severely damaged the basement pantry locations. Nevertheless, Open Table of Christ did not give up on the food pantry. The church voted to move the pews out of the sanctuary, store food in a room that had been a lounge, and set up the pantry for guests in the chapel twice a week.

The food pantry, now called “New Horizons Community Pantry,” forms the heart of Open Table of Christ’s community ministry today. We met and worked with Jerry Viou, Project Outreach Administrator, who is in charge of the food pantry (and much more). Here he is, ready to welcome guests to the sanctuary:

The day we helped out, the pantry operated like this:
  • Guests arrived as early as 5:30 AM. Doors to the sanctuary opened around 7:30 when the floor manager arrived. Guests signed in, got a number, and waited in the sanctuary, where Jerry had quiet music playing and volunteers served coffee and snacks. Pantry food is extremely important to them. While most are eligible for SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), many do not sign up due to language barriers, illiteracy, or fear based on their immigration status.
  • Meanwhile a dozen or so caring and dedicated volunteers readied food to offer to guests. A large donation of bread arrived from Panera Bread and other local stores. We repacked some of the bread, such as bagels, into portions approximately equal to 1 loaf of bread. We also moved boxes of food from the storage area into the chapel and arranged it on long tables. All that food had come from food drives and the RI Community Food Bank, but due to a very large incidence of food that had arrived damaged by rodents, dirty, out of date, or opened, each can, jar, and package was carefully checked by volunteers. Anything that was not wholesome and clean was discarded. Pictured here is an example we found of a jar which not only had expired in 2005 but also was leaking.
PLEASE:  When you donate to food drives, give only food you would be proud to serve at your own table.
  • At about 9:30, the pantry was ready for guests. Jerry read a short Bible passage and said a prayer with the guests who had been waiting patiently in the sanctuary. His English message was translated into Spanish and Portuguese by bilingual guests or volunteers. Then each guest, assisted by a volunteer who could help translate food labels, came into the chapel and selected pasta, pasta sauce, tuna, beans, vegetables, a baking item (such as jello or a cake mix), a loaf of bread, a condiment item, and a fruit or soft drink (as long as the supply lasted). 
  • By 10:30 all the guests had received food, and the volunteers returned the remaining food to storage.
  • Like many good community programs, Project Outreach partners with many other organizations. For example, a doctor comes every Tuesday to assist pantry guests. There are classes in ESL and in management of common health conditions such as asthma and diabetes. And the AS220 Broad Street Studio created a gallery in the chapel displaying photographs with moving quotes by guests.

This pantry faces tremendous obstacles every day. They have an aging building, substandard and decreasing food donations, and increasing need in their community. But through it all, Open Table of Christ is becoming a vibrant, multicultural, urban community center.