Darlene Larson went to the Portland Food Bank one July morning to donate some clothes, and she left with a shopping cart full of food to share with her 6-year-old son.
Larson, 52, is like a lot of the new clients at Connecticut food banks and pantries these days — familiar faces who used to stop by with donations but are now forced to visit to meet their own needs.
Rising food and gasoline prices are hurting minimum-wage working families who now have to choose between a gallon of milk for the children or gas in the tank to get to their jobs, officials at the food bank say.
And the need is stretching beyond Connecticut's cities and poorer areas to more affluent towns along the shoreline and in the Farmington Valley.
Patty Dowling is the executive director of The Shoreline Soup Kitchens and Pantries, which provides food to 11 shoreline towns including Old Saybrook, Clinton and others along the Route 9 corridor. She said that since January, more than 5,000 people have registered at the pantry — a 40 percent increase over 2007.
"It's difficult to see moms and dads coming in here a lot of times with tears in their eyes saying things like, 'I can't believe I'm here. I used to donate to this pantry. I had a life that meant I didn't need to come here,'" Dowling said.
"Some people think this is unbelievable that it's happening on the shoreline because they have this image of it being a wealthy, well-to-do area. However, it is very expensive to live here."
Dowling describes her new clients as "newly poor" or "people who were making it last year" but fell on hard times because of cost increases for food, gas and utilities. The need becomes even greater when clients become ill, get laid off from their jobs, go through a divorce or lose their homes to foreclosure, food bank officials said.
From January to June, the United Way of Connecticut's 211 information line received 8,359 calls from people looking for help finding free or affordable food, nearly 2,000 more than in the same period last year, said Malia Sieve, director of community results for the 211 line.
"We're finding that this is not just an issue that is facing low-income families," Sieve said. "It's creeping into the middle class."
Food bank officials also are serving families who receive food stamps. Many of those families stop by the pantries at the end of the month when they run out of food.
"It's what all of us are feeling at the grocery store and gas pump," said Nancy Carrington, executive director of the Connecticut Food Bank, which provides food to six of the state's eight counties. "But people who were on the edge before are now being pushed over the edge. It's too much to tolerate."
After her divorce last year, Larson found a job as a modeling teacher and was able to support her young son. Then, Larson's employer cut back her hours to four per week during the slow summer months, leaving her with a $240 monthly paycheck. That, added to the monthly $160 child support and $200 her son receives in disability from his father, covered her monthly $200 rent but left her with $400 to pay the rest of her bills.
Any extras this summer — a water pistol her son saw at the store or a ride to the beach — are not possible, she said.
"I donate what I can now," Larson said while handing over a bag of clothes to Ruth Maio, the executive director of Portland's food bank. "But today, I've got a list of my own."
A morning at the food bank in Portland — a town of about 9,000 residents with a median income of about $65,000 — is a snapshot of what's happening at pantries across the state. Elderly men and women on fixed incomes come in looking for a month's worth of staples. Single mothers with children receive bags of food and are encouraged to sort through a table full of specialty items like organic pasta, gourmet salsas, herbal teas and chunky loaves of bread.
To Larson, the volunteers at the food bank wear many hats. On this day, Maio is a grocer, making sure Larson gets her monthly supply of food. Maio is also a waitress, offering Larson fresh pizza someone brought in for clients, and a personal shopper, outfitting Larson in donated dresses and suits for job interviews Larson — who said she has college degrees in psychology and mathematics — has lined up for the following week.
A purple dress and blue suit with pinstripes make the cut.
"They say dark blue is a good color to wear for an interview. It shows you're responsible," Larson said while modeling the suit for Maio seconds after stepping out of a bathroom at the food bank. Those seated at a table nodded their heads in approval.
"You'd make a good salesperson," Larson said to Maio.
In April, Maio had 156 clients at the food bank. That increased to 195 in May and to 216 in June. For additional help, particularly for the elderly, Maio has signed up with the national Angel Food Ministries, a program that offers a month's worth of food for a single person for $30.
There are no income requirements and anyone can sign up for Angel Ministries, which has 15 host sites across Connecticut. Maio said she's already had 35 applicants.
"I was just so worried about what the fall and winter months would do to our seniors," Maio said.
In Greater Hartford, food bank officials also are getting creative in response to increasing numbers of new clients at pantries "in towns people don't expect," said Gloria J. McAdam, president and chief executive officer for Foodshare Inc., which serves Hartford and Tolland counties.
In Enfield, McAdam said, the number of families served has nearly doubled, from 180 to 300, and the need is up 14 percent in Avon. Manchester's primary social services agency — the Manchester Area Conference of Churches — saw 169 new families in April, a "phenomenal number," McAdam said, because their total caseload is about 1,000.
"And these are families they've never had contact with before," McAdam said.
In response, Foodshare is aggressively seeking donations, which are up by 4 percent, and cutting back in some areas to make up for one of their biggest challenges: the cost to transport food in trucks that run on expensive diesel fuel. The organization has overspent its transportation budget already, she said.
Foodshare is also working with local grocery stores on getting meat donations, an effort that has yielded 200 to 300 pounds of meat for needy families per week, McAdam said.
For years, a small food pantry was all that was needed in Madison — until recently, when volunteers began running out of food as the numbers of those in need seemed to double.
In 2007, there were 335 visits to the pantry, said Wendy Larson, Madison's social services coordinator. Since January, the number of visits is already at 323, with 78 in May alone, she said.
"We were finding that they just couldn't keep it stocked," Larson said of the pantry. Town officials reacted by joining forces with the Connecticut Food Bank, and a local church agreed to provide space for a larger food bank.
Larson said they hope to have the new facility — with more shelf space and refrigerators for perishable food — operating by September. And along with that effort, Larson said she'll continue to educate Madison residents that there are struggling families in their community trying to meet basic needs.
"We need to make our community more aware that it does happen here," Larson said. "And fortunately, we have a generous community. They respond when there's a need."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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