Finding food support at a mobile pantry

By Kaylin Bracey

Volunteers set up in front of the Connecticut Food Bank’s mobile food pantry truck in The Christ the Bread of Life Parish parking lot.

Volunteers set up in front of the Connecticut Food Bank’s mobile food pantry truck in The Christ the Bread of Life Parish parking lot.

On a sunny Wednesday afternoon in May, Karen Person waited in line at the mobile food pantry truck in the parking lot of Christ the Bread of Life Parish on Circular Avenue. Out of 130 people in line, she was 10th. With her reusable shopping bags in tow, Person selected a variety of foods including an eight-pack of low-fat yogurt, 10 firm red chili peppers and a large, ripe watermelon. This was her first time attending the monthly mobile food pantry.

Person, who is 65 and retired, moved to Hamden about six months ago after living in West Haven for 19 years. She worked at Yale New Haven Hospital as a business associate for 37 years before retiring in 2017. Recently, Person discovered she was ineligible for benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

“I have some food but sometimes I run out and then sometimes I don’t have enough cash on me to get it, so it [the food pantry] works out,” said Person.

See a map view and calendar view of other Hamden food banks and pantries.

Since its opening in July 2018, the Christ the Bread of Life Parish mobile food pantry has served 1,451 people.

Connecticut Food Bank runs the pantry with fiscal support from the United Way. The organizers chose the parish as a host site because there are high levels of food insecurity in the area. The parish is located near elementary schools Helen Street and Church Street, in which the percentages of students eligible for free or reduced lunch were 68.3 and 79.3 in the 2016-2017 school year. These numbers were higher than the district wide average of 41.9 percent according to the United Way of Greater New Haven report, Facts & Faces: Food Hardship in Hamden.

Mary Prescott, the pastoral associate of the parish, is one of the lead organizers. At 3:30 p.m. on the day of the pantry, Prescott placed orange traffic cones in the parking lot to prevent people from parking in the food pantry area and to promote safety. Once recipients arrived, Prescott greeted them with numbered, green tickets that represented a person’s position in line. From 5 to 6 p.m., Prescott conversed with the recipients and divided them in groups of 10 to receive their food.

However, Prescott says she prefers to stay behind the scenes during the pantry to protect the privacy of clients.

“One day I happened to come face to face with one of our parishioners who looked mortified that I saw that she was there … So [most of the time] I go set everything up and then I stay inside our youth group center,” said Prescott.

“I don’t want someone to not come because they might be embarrassed that I may see them there,” said Prescott.

If Prescott chooses to stay inside, volunteers from the parish hand out tickets and oversee the parking lot. Regardless of her location, Prescott is determined to make sure everything runs smoothly.

The parish collaborates with the United Way of Greater New Haven to recruit and organize volunteers to give out food at the pantry.

Around 4 p.m. during the May pantry, volunteers arrived and received folded cardboard boxes including a name tag, additional information about the United Way and a t-shirt. Daquan Stuckey, an AmeriCorps VISTA member at the United Way, gave the volunteers a brief introduction about the pantry before sending them off to unload the truck.

Stuckey and another VISTA member, Holly Velleca, worked together to check up on the volunteers, making sure they were comfortable and having a good time.  

“Sometimes when you are sitting at a desk all day, you can be very removed from experiences. But now that I’m here and I see the struggles that other people are going through, it makes it even more real and motivates me even more. So I think that’s really important,” said Velleca.

Of course the mobile food pantry would not be possible without the Connecticut Food Bank. Pete Bellacicco, who has been a truck driver for the organization for 12 years, arrived at 4 p.m. with various loaves of bread, boxes filled with oranges, frozen cheese pizzas and several other items. Organizers assigned each volunteer a food item and Bellacicco informed them how much of each to give out.

The Connecticut Food Bank created the mobile food pantry program about six years ago to give people who live in ‘food deserts’ more access to nutritious food. An 84,000 square foot warehouse in Wallingford stores food donated by grocery stores, such as Big Y, local farms and other nationwide food distribution companies. Once the food enters the warehouse, it is weighed, inspected and stored in appropriate rooms until it is time for distribution.

On the Tuesday before the Wednesday mobile food pantry, the truck is loaded with refrigerated and non-refrigerated foods that are close to expiration. The amount of food in the truck depends on how many people attended the previous mobile food pantry.

Frederick Goodman, the programs manager of the Connecticut Food Bank, oversees the mobile food pantries.

“I feel very proud to be able to be a part of an organization that meets the needs of the people in the community,” said Goodman.

Since the mobile food pantry program has been well received by the community, Connecticut Food Bank organizers say they hope to increase the number of mobile food truck visits, particularly on the weekends.

And at Christ the Bread of Life Parish, Prescott and others hope to continue to offer food services in a respectful, private way.

“Hunger is not what people think that it is and one of the things that we like to do when we’re talking about the mobile food pantry is kind of taking away the stigma of being in need,” said Prescott.

Karen Person, the Hamden resident, said she loved the healthy food offered at the mobile pantry and that she would definitely come back, especially since it is close to her house and less crowed than New Haven pantries.

The supplemental food from the truck will help her get through the month, she said.

“You think that when you retire …” she said, pausing for a moment. “It’s just hard in Connecticut to make ends meet.”

Kaylin Bracey