Connecticut scrambles to feed those hardest hit by the COVID economy
First of three stories.
“When the Salvation Army is running out of stuff – that’s when you start to panic.”
Those words from the Army’s Major Giselle Acosta came the day after she had to turn people away from one of the lines at their Danbury food pantry. “We’re known as being the reliable source. That means if we’re running out, you can imagine what it’s like everywhere else.”
Brutal would not overstate the situation.
A flood of Connecticut residents have joined the even bigger flood of people in hours-long lines all over the country – looking for help with the most fundamental of life’s imperatives: food. Refugees in the COVID crisis, they have been thrown out of work by an economic meltdown that has pushed people nationwide onto a now severely stretched safety net.
The resulting stress on the national food system and its trickle-down into local food distribution and purchase systems everywhere has set off a cascading scramble to get food to people who, perhaps for the first time ever, can’t get food, can’t afford food, or both.
In Connecticut as elsewhere shortages of food and serious kinks in the national supply chain are crippling long-standing service organizations, including the two major food banks and pantries trying to service clientele whose numbers have ballooned. They are facing shortages of volunteers, transportation challenges, dangers from the virus itself, balky federal systems, rising costs and the need to remake business models on the fly.
People are horrified at what this is uncovering. … We cannot let this happen again in the same way.”
At the Danbury Salvation Army, Acosta said 80% of the 40 or so people who came to pick up monthly allotments at the pantry last week were first-timers. The overall traffic has more than doubled.
Food donations have all but stopped, Acosta said, and the state’s major food banks that supply hundreds of pantries –including hers– have been facing major food shortages as residents decimate the same grocery store supplies the food banks now need because their supply chains have broken down.
Among the most concerning problems: meat processors shutting down due to COVID-19-afflicted workers, trucking systems that can’t make long-haul trips due to shutdowns across the country, lack of workers and more. The photographs of milk being dumped down drains and freshly harvested vegetables being plowed under are painful and puzzling in a nation that generally has more than enough food to feed its people.
“When we place an order with the Connecticut Food Bank, it’s now very limited,” Acosta said. “They didn’t have peanut butter or jelly. They didn’t have rice, a very limited selection of beans, soups, spaghetti sauce.”
She did get a $2,000 emergency food grant from United Way to purchase from grocery stores, but that won’t go as far with prices going up as the supplies on shelves are whittled down.
The situation is compounding problems in Danbury and other cities around the state with sizeable at-risk populations that for decades have struggled with food access even in normal times.
“What this is giving to us in very stark relief is all of the cracks and fissures and holes that we thought existed,” said Martha Page, executive director of Hartford Food System, a longstanding non-profit dedicated to achieving healthy food access in the capital city – a struggle in the best of times. “We should not be forgiven if we forget any time soon just how broken a system – that we know was already broken – this is.
“People are horrified at what this is uncovering.”
What the pandemic has uncovered is that emergency food systems around the state have no central coordination, nor were they designed to meet so many layers of such rapid and catastrophic needs.
“We need to roll up our sleeves for real, boys and girls,” Page said. “We cannot let this happen again in the same way.”
So, what did happen?
First there’s the obvious – states, including Connecticut, going into something akin to a lockdown, closing non-essential businesses and sending more than 26 million people nationally looking for unemployment compensation as of April 23. It’s a good bet many of those will be looking for food assistance – mainly SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps . The lag time for receiving both, not atypical but now exacerbated by the sheer volume of demand, has meant that many people with no income are flocking to free food sources such as food banks and pantries.
Compounding the problem, most restaurants are closed – sending people still able to afford groceries to grocery stores. Food banks, pantries, soup kitchens and other existing meal operations unable to get enough product from their usual sources are also heading to grocery stores to buy what they can, as are an untold number of ad hoc groups trying to distribute food.
The competition for food has been fierce.
The ensuing lineups have been epic in parts of the country – with thousands of cars waiting for bags of food from operations that have had to pivot from allowing people to have a more dignified “shopping” experiences and choosing what they wanted, to a safer system.
In Connecticut, the impact has been acute for the two major food banks – Connecticut Food Bank which covers all counties in the state except Hartford and Tolland, and Foodshare. Both are among the roughly 200 members of the nationwide food bank supply network Feeding America.
The Food Bank supplies some 600 partners and programs. About 70% of the Food Bank’s inventory goes to the approximately 300 operations that are pantries and soup kitchens. Last year overall volume was about 22.5 million pounds of food.
But Paul Shipman, senior director of marketing, communication and government relations, said the organization was already seeing a significant jump in demand the last couple of weeks of March – up by about 120,000 pounds from the second to third week, ultimately reaching about a half-million pounds.
“What folks want is more,” he said.
But there isn’t more.
“We are still getting contributions from grocers and retailers, but they fluctuate a lot more widely now,” he said. More desperate buyers are now purchasing the crumpled cereal box, the minor dented can or the apples that don’t look so good that previously might have gone to a food bank. “As stores get shopped out, we get less.”
Connecticut, he said, is a microcosm of what’s happening nationally. “There’s food out there. It’s not easy to get, prices are higher, lead times are longer.”
Need has ramped up more quickly than the supply chain is ready to provide, he said. “Everything is in slow motion, if not slow motion and short supply.”
At Foodshare, Jason Jakubowski, president and CEO, said his organization supplies about 260 partner programs, including 63 mobile sites, totaling about 11.5 million meals a year. It takes a staff of 55, plus 6,500 volunteers. He hasn’t had time to crunch numbers since the emergency started.
Several of the mobile sites have had to close as food operations in the state has been forced to pivot into a less-contamination prone way of doing business for both workers and user. “We’re trying to stay as safe as humanly possible,” he said.
Mobile sites have been reporting that lines are doubling and pantry orders are up 25 to 30%. “Everybody gets something,” he said. “That would be a really, really bad day if we had to drive away with people still in line.”
That said, there have been some seriously long lines of cars, in excess of 1,000 at times, at the Hartford Regional Market, where Foodshare has been able to run produce pickups three times a week. It is getting products from the big wholesalers there like Sysco, Freshpoint and Hartford Provisions, which lost their markets when schools, universities, restaurants and hotels closed.
That would be a really, really bad day if we had to drive away with people still in line.”
Jakubowski said they’ve been running through about 10,000 pounds of food each day. The operation moved to Rentschler Field in East Hartford this week with some additional purchased and donated products, including Pepperidge Farm breads and yogurt from Trader Joe’s.
Foodshare is starting with about 40,000 pounds of food available to Hartford and Tolland County residents but Jakubowski doesn’t know whether there will be enough to get through five days. On Monday, cars were lined up by 6:10 a.m. for an 8:30 a.m. opening and by the time it shut, more than 930 cars had gone through.
Pre-Covid, he said, 75% of Foodshare’s product was donated by the Connecticut food industry. “That instantly plummeted,” he said. “We have to purchase food – one thing food banks do not like to do.”
In three weeks, he’s spent about $200,000 to do just that — nearly his entire annual budget of $250,000 for purchased food.
“Short term – we are surviving week by week. We are not planning more than a week out,” Jakubowski said, adding, “We will not close. Our job is to stay up and running.”
Nearly every volunteer system has required a major overhaul, since traditionally it is older people – retirees and others – who have helped staff these operations, from the biggest food banks to the smallest pantries. A new volunteers corps have to be recruited and trained. New organizational systems that keep people far apart have to be developed. More disinfecting and cleaning and wiping everything down to protect both clients and workers has made many operations slower and clunkier on top of all the other challenges.
Home deliveries have been ramped up for those who can’t or shouldn’t go out.
And client choice has gone out the window.
Almost every food bank, pantry or meal service has pivoted to pre-packed provisions distributed in drive-through settings, locations with plexiglass partitions, by appointment, or some combination of them all. Communal meal systems like soup kitchens are now grab-and-go; senior meal centers have become home delivery operations. All of it requires more, not fewer, volunteers.
The March 23 Connecticut Food Bank mobile pantry in Hamden, for instance, started with pallets of food dropped off for pre-packaging. The food was then handed out in a drive-through in the snow and rain. Instead of the usual 150 people, about 250 showed up and cars were turned away, said Adam Sendroff, the town’s community development manager.
So everyone went bigger for the April 8 mobile pantry. The National Guard helped pack and distribute enough for 400 cars. “We probably turned away as many as we served,” Sendroff said. The April 27 mobile pantry will increase to 450.
The town food pantry has now switched to pre-packed bags and added delivery for those who can’t get there. The volume of clients has doubled since February and AnneMarie Karavas, who organizes it, expects it to triple this month even as supplies are dwindling.
“Pancakes, oatmeal — they have none at the food bank,” she said. “Right now all the meat from the food bank is pork patties. Usually there are three sheets to pick out of. Now there’s one sheet. Not even.”
We probably turned away as many as we served.”
In Fairfield Country, the Danbury Salvation Army is far from the only organization struggling with explosive demand and dwindling supplies. Cara Mitchell, food policy manager for the United Way of Western Connecticut, said she is sensing more desperation in the last week among food providers in Stamford, the hardest hit municipality in the state by COVID-19, and Danbury, one of the hardest hit.
Mitchell said her United Way branch is fundraising to try to stock shelves, but finding food remains a struggle. “It’s been very difficult logistically to figure all this out,” she said. “People are just so overwhelmed with what’s happening.”
Gloria Mora, a special needs tutor from Danbury now out of work, was already using food pantries to help supplement a meager income, which is now cut in half. She’s also trying to feed her two college-enrolled children who are living at home while going to school on-line. She’s applied for SNAP and has been going to two food banks, but they’re now providing less food.
“Maybe before there were three bags of beans and now there’s only one,” she said. “It’s a challenge for everyone.”
Person-to-Person has been around since 1968 and now with three locations is one of the largest food pantries in the Stamford, Darien, Norwalk area. Since the coronavirus crisis began it’s added home deliveries and switched from self-service to packed bags.
Nancy Coughlin, the executive director, said there been about a 40% across the board increase in demand for food, but on a couple of days it’s been more than double what it was at the same time last year.
Food sources have dried up for Coughlin, too. She’s also out there trying to buy what she can.
“Typically we spend $15,000 a month on food. Now we’re spending $25,000,” she said. “I have been able to get most of what we need, but it’s just extremely expensive and it’s inefficient … We’re losing the economies we would normally have.”
I don’t think we’ve seen the true need yet. Even if people get SNAP and unemployment – at the end of the day it’s not going to be enough.”
Coughlin and others say the state’s food systems have tended to operate in silos, with hundreds of operations each re-inventing their own wheels, duplicating efforts and stepping on each other’s toes. “Now is not the time to critique,” she said. “But we need to change our operation so we’re never in this position again.”
In the New London area, Dina Sears-Graves, vice president of community impact at United Way of Southeast Connecticut, was luckier than most. When the casinos shut down, her operation wound up with some 62,000 pounds of produce to give away before it rotted.
But the luck ended there.
She tried to run the mobile food panties as pre-packaged grab-and-go operations but it was so labor intensive — taking dozens of volunteers a full day to get the bags ready and dozens more to run the trucks – they were discontinued.
“It was not safe for staff or safe for volunteers,” she said. In the short time they ran, they had about 1,000 customers show up for two mobile pantries in one week – the volume she’d normally see in a month.
And that may have only been the warm-up.
“I don’t think we’ve seen the true need yet,” she said adding that the full impact of the casino shutdowns really hasn’t hit. “Even if people get SNAP and unemployment – at the end of the day it’s not going to be enough.”
What is government – any government – doing to alleviate the COVID-19 food crisis? Read about that in part 2.
This story was updated on April 23 to reflect the increase in unemployment filings.
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