The coronavirus put Connecticut and the world in an economic tailspin one year ago. In this special three-part series, the CT Mirror began by mapping the persistent damage that has fallen primarily on low-wage workers, followed with a deep dive into how Connecticut’s housing boom has been a bust for the poor. Today, a look at the humanity behind feeding those in need.
This is the story of the state’s uneven recovery — so far.
Worried the 1,200 boxes filled with apples, cheese, meatballs, and onions that a small army of volunteers were handing out at 10 a.m. would be gone before they could claim one, residents in this Bunker Hill section of Waterbury began lining up almost two hours before the drive-through for free food was scheduled to begin.
On this particular March morning, the food lasted an hour before it was gone. Then the volunteers began their routes, delivering a separate cache of boxes to those home-bound residents who weren’t able to get to the food bank.
“I got your box,” Geraldo Reyes yelled out his car window to one of the regulars along his route who was sitting on his front steps. “Here you go.”
“Thank you,” the man said, then called, “Hold on. My neighbor that was here yesterday, do you got his too?”
Reyes explained that this is all the food he has. “We’re trying,” he said.
Reyes, a state representative who grew up in Waterbury and serves as chairman of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, has become accustomed to fielding requests for more food since the pandemic struck, leaving one out of every eight residents in his community unemployed.
These food lines have become Connecticut’s reality as the pandemic enters its 14th month and the economic fallout continues.
Five days a week, a steady stream of cars arrives at locations in East Hartford, Norwalk, and Norwich, and free food is placed in their trunks. And while the demand for free food at these drive-through and pop-up food banks has somewhat lessoned since the initial surge last spring, the need has plateaued since January. At the three main mobile food distribution sites, nearly 5,500 trunks have been loaded with food each week since January, with a rotating patchwork of smaller mobile food banks, like the one in Waterbury, also taking place.
Food pantries are also filling the void.
At numerous local food pantries across the state, the demand went up and never really subsided — the result of an uneven economic recovery with low-wage workers still 28% below their pre-pandemic employment levels.
“The demand never went back down, it just sort of stopped increasing,” said Nancy Coughlin, who, as the leader of Person to Person, operates food pantries in Norwalk and Darien and a mobile pantry. “Until those jobs come back, they’re going to continue to be hard hit … People are in so much debt and there was such a small safety net for so many of them before the pandemic that it’s going to take them a long time to dig out, so I think we’re going to continue to have high levels.”
While these food banks and drive-through sites have met an crucial demand during an extraordinary time, there seems to be consensus among anti-hunger and food experts that this approach is not an efficient way to feed the hungry — nor is it the most humane.
“I want to point out to everybody, this is not the ideal way of solving hunger,” said Jason Jakubowski, president of Connecticut Food Bank/Foodshare, starting off a recent press conference outside his organization’s mobile food distribution site in the parking lot of Rentschler Field in East Hartford. “This certainly works in an emergency. … Obviously, lines of cars and putting boxes in cars is not the way of solving hunger.”
So what is the alternative?
“There’s no doubt about that: SNAP,” said Robin Lamott Sparks, executive director of the advocacy group End Hunger Connecticut, referring to federal food stamps, which are distributed through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Those who get food stamps are given a debit card that is loaded with their qualified amount of aid, allowing them to purchase food at grocery stores, bodegas, gas stations and even many farmers markets.
“SNAP is the first line of defense against hunger,” agreed Jakubowski.
But despite the massive economic turmoil caused by COVID-19 — and a record high number of people out of work — there were only 250 more Connecticut residents receiving food stamps in 2020 compared to 2019. That essentially flat line, however, is significant in that it reverses a 5-year trend of the program enrolling fewer people.
Experts attribute the drop in SNAP enrollment in prior years to a host of factors; an improving economy; a 2016 restriction that prohibits unemployed, non-disabled individuals without children from drawing benefits for more than three months over three years; President Trump’s efforts to deny a path to citizenship for those who have received public assistance such as food stamps; and the extra $600 in unemployment compensation people received during the first several months of the crisis, which counted as income and pushed people off the SNAP “benefits cliff.”
In the years leading up to the pandemic, the number of people receiving food stamps fell in every state and then spiked when the pandemic first hit. But Connecticut is one of 13 states where, by November, the surge had dissipated and fewer people were on food stamps than there were pre-pandemic — despite the state having the sixth highest unemployment rate in the country.
It doesn’t seem to be for a lack of demand.
The calls for help still flood End Hunger Connecticut, which operates the state’s food assistance hotline to prescreen residents for eligibility for SNAP and help them apply. Calls to the hotline tripled in 2020 compared to 2019. By February, call volume was still 50% higher than one year earlier. United Way’s 1-1 hotline has seen a similar surge, with 4.5 times more calls from people seeking food, and the volume is still 2.5 times what it was pre-pandemic.
“All of a sudden the calls went crazy we had hundreds of calls a day, and we were used to like 450 a month before the pandemic,” said Lamott from End Hunger CT.
Black and Hispanic residents are twice as likely to be receiving food stamps in Connecticut, but their enrollment did not noticeably change during the pandemic despite becoming unemployed at much higher levels.
Ellen Vollinger, legal director of the Food Research and Action Center, a national advocacy group on hunger issues said that nationwide there’s also an issue of people churning through the system.
“People are coming on and off SNAP, not because there’s no longer a need or financial qualification for SNAP — it’s usually associated with a procedural glitch,” she said, pointing to the paperwork and bureaucracy that recipients must navigate to continue receiving aid. Weaving through this process during a pandemic may be especially challenging.
Even still, the flat line in participation during the pandemic is somewhat baffling to food advocates.
“I am pretty shocked,” said Stacy McLoughlin Taylor, the head of policy at Propel, which has surveyed food stamp recipients throughout the pandemic and runs the phone application, Fresh EBT, that recipients — 40,000 of them Connecticut residents — use to monitor their balance. “I’m sort of shocked that the caseload has stayed the same.”
“This tells us that there’s more we need to learn, like what is going on?” said Vollinger.
The Connecticut Department of Social Services, which operates the food stamp program, has a few thoughts on the trend.
“Traditionally, SNAP enrollment is aligned with economic conditions. For calendar [year] 2020, there was a marked increase in SNAP enrollment as the pandemic worsened, cresting at 388,356 individuals served in May. As other aid programs and pandemic responses occurred (unemployment compensation, stimulus, payroll protection, etc.) along with employment recovery, some beneficiaries no longer qualified for or needed SNAP assistance. Thus, we saw enrollment gradually dip to 367,959 in December,” said David Dearborn, DSS spokesman, in a written statement.
Dearborn pointed out that each month since December enrollment has increased and is 3% above pre-pandemic levels.
“The need is still there… but we have to keep in mind that SNAP is a federally-funded program administered on statutory eligibility rules around income, household size, age, whether a household member has a disability, rent and utility costs and so on,” he added.
Dearborn also said the agency is working to reduce people churning on and off benefits by implementing certain flexibilities, extending re-enrollment windows, and waiving the mid-month reporting and interview requirements for households.
The stakes are high for getting people enrolled in SNAP.
The U.S. Census Bureau has conducted surveys every two weeks to discover the economic impact the pandemic is having on families. Those surveys have regularly estimated that one out of every 13 people in Connecticut regularly lacks sufficient food, which is slightly better than one-in-12 people nationwide. Feeding America, a national anti-hunger advocacy coalition that partners with food banks across the country, estimates that, based on poverty and unemployment levels, one out of every 17 people in Connecticut will have such low food security in 2021 that they will reduce their food intake. That puts Connecticut in 10th place nationally.
As food insecurity persists and food stamp enrollment stagnates, however, the drive-through food distribution sites are scheduled to shut down, beginning with Rentschler field in East Hartford at the end of this month. Norwalk and Norwich sites are not far behind.
Sporting events are starting to resume, which means Rentschler Field and its parking lot will soon be needed. Norwalk’s mobile food site is in the parking lot at a public beach and summer weather is almost here.
The windfall of food boxes that have primarily stocked these mobile sites in Connecticut came through new federally-funded program established during the pandemic — and those boxes are slated to stop being delivered at the end of the month.
“These are emergency drive-through distributions. They are not permanent distributions. They are not the most efficient way of delivering or getting food to people in need,” said Jakubowski. “We have said many times over the last year that someday these distributions will go away. The Rentschler Field distribution is going away at the end of April, and it’s a good thing because it means that people are starting to come back to Rentschler field, that’s something that we should be celebrating because it means that we’re seeing some light at the end of the tunnel in terms of the pandemic.”
Now, he said it is his and others job to connect those in need to one of the 700 food pantries sprinkled throughout the state, or making sure they receive food stamps so people can purchase food at grocery stores or farmer’s markets rather than continuing this separate — and costly — food distribution strategy.
The twice-a-week drive through in East Hartford costs CT Food Share/Food Bank $40,000 a week to pay for things like traffic controllers and extra staff. This cost doesn’t factor in all the free food, volunteers, or Connecticut National Guard needed to staff the event.
Where’s the humanity?
Nicolas Rodriguez’s three young children really don’t like chicken.
But as he struggles to recover from COVID and has had to cut back his hours at the factory where he works, chicken is what’s in the free food box week after week. Sometimes the milk and cheese is just a day or two from the expiration date.
“Sometimes they say, ‘Oh, chicken again.’ And I say, ‘Well that’s what’s for dinner.'” the Hamden resident said, who doesn’t qualify for food stamps because he is undocumented and makes too much money for his children to qualify. “They’re eating a lot of chicken and potatoes these days.”
It’s an issue that comes up a lot.
At the drive-through in East Hartford, a couple of volunteers lamented when they saw children in the car and all they had to put in the trunk of their car from the protein section was a protein shake.
“Yea, she’s not going to eat that,” the volunteer pointed out while sifting through the boxes for an alternative for the next car with a child.
Advocates say the best way to provide food that people will actually eat — instead of handing out food they don’t like, can’t eat due to allergies or dietary restrictions, or doesn’t fit with their religious beliefs — is to give people food stamps so they can go to the store and pick it out themselves.
“We’re flying a little blind about what we’re giving people. We’re making sure that they’re getting nutrition but it might not be exactly the foods that they want or their children want,” said Coughlin of People to People food pantries, adding that when the pantries are safe enough to reopen this will somewhat help because then people can shop their aisles. “”We want to be able to get food that they’re actually going to eat.”
There is also a level of humanity that comes with food stamps.
“There’s a lot more dignity in allowing someone to go to the grocery store, and purchase food, versus someone going someplace and hoping someone hands them stuff they like,” said Coughlin. “I say it all the time, people should not rely on this kindness of strangers to have to feed their families. And that’s what those drive-throughs are.”
On a recent afternoon at the East Hartford mobile distribution site, there was a line of cars pulled over so their occupants could check what food they’d just received.