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A Food Pantry for the Future

Three Hartford Nonprofits Have Teamed Up To Launch A Food Pantry That Will Serve The Region's Poor With Fresh Food And Dignity.

May 31, 2007
By DANIEL D'AMBROSIO, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer

There are 75 food pantries to feed the poor in Connecticut, but none of them are like the one about to be built in Hartford’s old Sealtest dairy factory at the corner of Homestead and Woodland avenues. In fact, there may not be another food pantry like Freshplace in the nation.

Three local nonprofits — Chrysalis Center, Foodshare, and Junior League — have joined forces to bring Freshplace to fruition.

Unlike most food pantries, which are consigned to church basement closets or the odd corners of town buildings, this pantry in the Upper Albany neighborhood will offer fresh food in a setting reminiscent of a small supermarket, complete with little shopping carts. There will also be the canned goods, cereals and elbow macaroni that are the staples of the typical food bank.

“We believe a food pantry should look a little like a store, and have shelves where people can pick out their own food,” said Gloria McAdam, president and chief executive officer of Foodshare. “It is a dignity issue.”

It’s also an issue that affects about 100,000 people in the Greater Hartford area — 10 percent of the total population of about 1 million — who don’t have the money to fill their own pantries.

“It is a tremendous need, but also not unusual,” said McAdam. “Ten percent is the average nationwide.”

Foodshare distributes food to 375 local organizations, which then directly serve those in need.

Just how much food are we talking about?

Try 9.2 million pounds in 2006 for the Greater Hartford area. That’s more than a tractor-trailer full of food every day, and it represents only one-third to one-half of the need, according to McAdam.

“It’s a bottom line budget issue,” said McAdam. “People don’t have enough money to pay all their bills including the grocery bill. You have to pay rent, and you have to pay utilities.”

Bear in mind that the heads of half the households Foodshare serves are employed.

Freshplace is also intended to address problems with basic nutrition among the poor, according to Sharon Castelli, executive director of Chrysalis Center. Many people living at or below the federally mandated poverty level, which qualifies them to use the food pantry, find the 99-cent menu at McDonald’s or Taco Bell an easy and appealing option.

“Over time that takes a toll on the body,” Castelli said.

Instead of being handed a pre-selected bag or box of food to last a day or two, Freshplace clients will make their own choices from a fruits and vegetables section — bathed in mist just like at Stop & Shop — a three-door freezer, a three-door cooler, and shelves of canned and boxed goods. They’ll get enough to last a week.

“Under dairy we hope to have milk, cheese and eggs and a variety of different juices, from orange to cranberry, apple and grape,” Castelli said. “Vegetables can be anything under the sun.”

As for meats, Castelli said Foodshare takes in donations of many different types from local supermarkets, but often has been unable to distribute them in time. McAdam explained the fresh food her organization receives is often “short-coded” with only a few days of usable life left.

“That’s where our challenge comes in,” McAdam said.

A challenge that will be much easier to meet once Freshplace opens. No opening date has yet been set, but fundraising continues for the estimated construction cost of $225,000.

Foodshare is the local affiliate of a nationwide network of food banks known as Second Harvest. McAdam and her staff work with local supermarkets and food companies to take in donations of food that is not salable for one reason or another, but “perfectly good to eat.”

McAdam said 70 to 80 percent of the food comes from about 100 local companies — the balance being donated by individuals — with the largest share coming from “all the names you’d expect,” including Stop & Shop, Shaw’s and Sysco, a wholesaler to restaurants with a distribution center in Rocky Hill.

Chrysalis Center works with about 2,000 people every year in the greater Hartford region, dealing with issues ranging from hunger to mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness. The organization currently runs a small food pantry for its clients only, but Freshplace will open its doors to the entire North Albany neighborhood, a dream of Chrysalis for years.

The dream was made possible when Castelli and her staff scored a coup four years ago, securing a deal on the 65,000-square-foot Sealtest building for a mere $100,000. Former owner, Massachusetts-based New England Dairies, initially put the building on the market for $2 million. But the space had sat empty for eight years, and the company wanted to get rid of it. Castelli said she almost got the property donated, until a juice company showed some interest in it at the last minute.

In four years, Chrysalis has raised $4.1 million toward the $5.2 million it needs to renovate the building. The organization will consolidate four of its nine offices around the city in the renovated building.

Chrysalis will also have room for a kitchen and community space where it can offer classes and seminars to help people from the impoverished North End neighborhood improve their lives.

“The goal isn’t just to give out fresh food, but to peel the onion as to why people need to use a food pantry and get at the root causes,” Castelli said.

Toward that end, Freshplace will include an “intake office” where clients will sit with a staff member or volunteer who will gather information in a “non-threatening way,” says Castelli.

Chrysalis will also ask for a “baseline on financials” if people are willing to share it, and then try to link their clients to the services and support they need.

The Junior League got involved with Freshplace last September, after putting out a request for proposals to the community for projects the organization could support with its volunteers and fund-raising efforts.

The 85-year-old organization has a track record of working with Hartford’s poor, especially in recent years.

“Most people think we’re sitting around in country clubs wearing pearls,” said Wendy Avery, co-chair of the League’s Freshplace Food Pantry Committee. “We’re really not. We used to be. We’ve become a sophisticated, educated, willing-to-roll-up-our-sleeves group.”

While they wait for Freshplace to open its doors, Junior League members came up with their own interim project for the upper Albany neighborhood in which 24 children at Martin Luther King Elementary School — identified by school staff, but anonymous to the League — are given rolling backpacks filled with food every week.

“Over 18 weeks we have supplied over 6,600 pounds of food to these children, which is enormously gratifying,” said Avery. “I think about it every weekend.”

The Junior League is expanding the backpack program in the coming year, but will keep it “manageable” so they can turn their attention to Freshplace once it opens.

“It’s rare to find three nonprofits coming together for one project that can be replicated nationally,” Castelli said. “Freshplace is a visionary step forward for food pantries in the future.”

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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