NEW BRITAIN — - Oxford Thompson, 21, still dreams of returning to college and becoming a photographer. But lately, he's mostly focused on finding work and food.
This fall, Thompson's full-time job as a parking lot attendant withered to eight hours a week. College ended this year when the high school teacher who had helped him pay for classes at Central Connecticut State University could no longer afford it.
So Thompson came to the Spanish-Speaking Center on Nov. 19 looking for canned goods. He has no car, so he walked the half-mile to the Cedar Street agency from the apartment he shares with roommates.
"I make just enough to pay for rent. My check is about $112 a week and I was getting — wow — like $500 a week before. I'm looking for work. I went to an ice cream factory, Dunkin' Donuts, even to businesses in Meriden. They're all saying the same thing. It's like disheartening." The Spanish-Speaking Center is one of 19 food providers in this city of 75,000, where a small army of volunteers, church members and social workers struggle to serve a growing need.
It's a hungry city, with a lot of bare cupboards. Exact figures are hard to nail down; the city has no agency that tracks the number of people seeking help from the various faith-based and nonprofit agencies in it.
"We don't keep tabs, but the increased need is something everyone agrees on," said Lisa Carver, Mayor Timothy Stewart's chief aide. "It's something we struggle with."
Similar struggles are happening daily in other communities, including Manchester, where demand at one food pantry has increased by 50 percent in one year.
In New Britain, city officials are considering converting the pool house at Osgood Park into a new food pantry to serve New Britain's northwest section. And the Salvation Army is converting its garage on Franklin Square into a larger food pantry.
"It can't happen fast enough," said Ellen P. Simpson, director of the Friendship Center, which began in the 1980s and now offers a soup kitchen, housing and programs to help people move out of poverty. "We're having people come in here in tears, unable to find sufficient food. Most food pantries are open one day a week. There's not enough resources out there to help."
The Straining Safety Net
Food providers in New Britain include four soup kitchens that serve hot meals, 12 food pantries that distribute fresh produce and other groceries and a mobile Foodshare grocery truck, which parks once a week in five different spots in the city to distribute free food.
But the groups are barely able to meet the need as the fraying national economy forces local companies to shed jobs and freeze hiring. The meager job market corresponds with a projected 7 percent increase in food prices, according to the federal agriculture department. Social service representatives worry that cash-starved city and federal governments may cut back on assistance,
Mary Lou Sanders, head of the Spanish-Speaking Center, grew up in New Britain and remembers when Fafnir Bearing, Tuttle & Bailey, New Britain Machine and other factories ran multiple shifts. But the smokestacks fizzled in the 1970s.
"Everything dried up. Immigrants used to flock to these neighborhoods for work. That's been gone now for decades," Sanders said.
In August, 3,810 people had gotten food assistance at the Spanish-Speaking Center. It's not clear if that number includes people who came more than once that month for help.
"And we're just one of 19 providers in New Britain," center food pantry coordinator Karl Messerschmidt said. "Every time our food pantry is open, I see new faces."
On Nov. 12, 20 people were waiting at 1 p.m. when the pantry opened. Ages on the sign-up sheet ranged from 18 to 84. Patrons included a 68-year-old widow trying to survive on less than $300 a month and a young mother of five trying to stay on top of essentials such as rent. The phone, TV and other extras are gone.
Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m., two groups serve hot meals. On a recent rain-swept Saturday, about 100 people showed up at the Isaiah 58 street mission at New Brite Plaza. The next day, about 40 gathered in Central Park downtown in below-freezing winds to eat hot vegetarian food prepared in a nearby church by volunteers with Food, Not Bombs, whose members collect unsold produce from stores.
According to Hartford-based End Hunger Connecticut, 8.6 percent of all state households — that's 120,000 — have trouble finding enough food to feed family members.
Connecticut Food Bank and Foodshare, the state's two food banks, provide food for over 350,000 different people annually. And working people make up 25 percent of those using emergency programs such as meal sites and food pantries, according to End Hunger, an advocacy group representing numerous groups that help feed Connecticut's hungry.
In Manchester, the Manchester Conference of Churches food pantry gave 1,776 people a week's worth of groceries last month, compared with 1,176 in October 2007.
Dale Doll, the conference's pantry and soup kitchen director, said recently that she sees "so much more need, it's just overwhelming. I've been doing this for 13 years, I should be used to food going fast, but I'll think we had enough cereal to last for months and then it's gone. I had cases and cases of beef stew that I thought would last forever, but then it's gone."
This Thanksgiving, the Salvation Army in New Britain was scheduled to help 57 families have a holiday dinner.
"It's double what it was last year," Major Norma Newton said on Nov. 21, the day the group handed out free turkeys for people to bring home for the holiday. The final tally was 375 turkeys, about 50 more than last year. So many people came, a city police officer had to direct traffic.
Louis Loubriel, 34, a new driver for Bloomfield-based Foodshare, which distributes groceries and produce to 58 stops in Hartford and Tolland counties, said sometimes he'll get to a stop in New Britain and "almost 100 people are standing in the cold, lined up to get a decent meal for today and tomorrow. It's good to help, but hurtful to see."
At one stop on Herald Drive, Foodshare had carrots, potatoes and bread to hand out. Its supply of cabbage and watermelon was cleaned out at earlier stops.
Two of the people there on Nov. 18 were Debbie, 41, and Tom, 43, once married to each other and now divorced, but still amicable. They drove in Tom's pickup to the Foodshare truck parked behind the New Britain Herald building. They didn't mind talking about their lives, but asked that their last names not be used.
Debbie has remarried, but her husband is struggling. His employer stopped health insurance and the company 401(k). Tom said he lost his truck-driving job last year and has been looking since for steady work. He's found some temporary jobs, most recently with an out-of-town paving contractor, but nothing permanent.
"My husband travels by bus to work because it's too expensive to have a car," Debbie said. "This is going to be a hard Christmas. It's very humbling. I never thought I'd need help like this. There's weeks where I'm OK with it and weeks when I'm not."
On a rainy Saturday, Peter Olbrick, 62, of New Britain, was waiting for the Isaiah 58 street mission to show up so he could both volunteer and eat. Olbrick's a regular at this Saturday stop that a Hebron church has run for years at New Brite Plaza. The line of about 60 people waiting in the rain for food is not news, he said. There's always a line.
Years ago, Olbrick worked at Lipman Motors. That was before his life fell apart. He lost his right eye and has a glass one. A forklift accident severed three fingers at the knuckle of his left hand, which makes doing odd jobs outside difficult, especially if it's wet, he said. With winter coming, Olbrick said he's nervous about food, so he's squirreling away what he can.
"I eat as little as possible each day to save food for winter when outside work is hard to find. I'm setting aside beef stew, meats, whatever I can. I don't want Social Security. I don't want welfare."
Ray Labbe, who co-founded Isaiah 58 with his wife, Linda, in the 1990s, brought a standard fare this Saturday — hot soups, meatball and beef-barley — canned goods and 1,200 pounds of Winesap and Empire apples donated by Scott's Orchard in Glastonbury.
"We first started doing this in Hartford," Labbe said. "We were there for two weeks and hardly anybody came. A friend told me about the need in New Britain and we came here."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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