Record numbers seek food pantry assistance
It is the Monday before Thanksgiving and the New Canaan Food Pantry shelves are glutted with canned pumpkin and boxes of Stove Top turkey stuffing. Every shelf, counter and tabletop is packed with non-perishable foods and condiments, stacked neatly by food type. Sixty-nine hunter green cloth shopping bags filled with the makings of a Thanksgiving meal -- a can of home style gravy, one quart of apple juice, a 120-count paper napkin pack and Hershey's dark hot cocoa mix, to name a few -- crowd the floor. A crew of six female volunteers armed with shopping carts and loose-fit pants bend and stretch to organize the shelves while two men roll carts piled with canned cranberries and peanuts into the pantry door.
Maggie Downes-Angus, a St. Mark's parishioner and the queen bee of the pantry, winds around the three-room basement food center, dictating shelf locations for goods like mayonnaise and canned tuna.
The volunteers are prepping for Tuesday, when an expected 157 clients will visit the pantry for their bi-monthly stock of food and an additional two shopping bags filled with Thanksgiving Day meal necessities.
"It's become a lot crazier in there," Downes-Angus said, and she doesn't just mean the holiday rush.
When you live in New Canaan and solicit help from the food pantry, Downes-Angus said, it probably feels like you are the only one. Yet in a town that is synonymous with luxury and wealth, there is a less-conspicuous and growing population of people in need.
Located in the undercroft of St. Mark's church, the food pantry is in its seventh year of service. St. Mark's church hosts the only food pantry in New Canaan. Before it was established in 2003, this was a town without a pantry.
About one in six Americans struggled with hunger in 2008, according to an annual US Department of Agriculture report released last week. This number is a record high, and it highlights a trend that follows suit locally.
In Connecticut, an average of 11 percent of households struggled to put food on the table between 2006 and 2008, according to another USDA report.
Yet even more staggering are the statistics here at home. The number of New Canaan residents seeking aid from the New Canaan Food Pantry, the only food pantry that serves New Canaan residents exclusively, increased 51 percent between January 2009 and September 2009, according to the town Department of Human Services. One hundred and fifty-seven New Canaan residents currently seek assistance from the pantry, a number that Human Services staff said is a record high.
Since May, Downes-Angus said, the number of pantry clients has grown considerably. Every other Tuesday, the pantry opens its doors and a new face enters, she said. Sometimes, there are several new faces. And some of these newest clients, Downes-Angus said, are New Canaan residents who have historically met help on the giving end, not the receiving end.
"It's really painful to watch," she said. "You can tell that it's really hard for some of these clients to come in."
One married couple, Downes-Angus said, sought aid from the pantry for one year after one of them lost him job.
"By having to ask for help, they said that they learned a lot as a family in that year," she said, adding, "That's really hard for people like this who have never had to ask for help before. We really want to urge people who do need it to come in."
Downes-Angus suspects that the number of pantry clients will continue to increase this winter as heating bills begin to climb.
"Despite the economy, people are still giving as much as ever," Downes-Angus said. "It's important as ever, too, because our client base is still growing."
Every holiday season, hoards of non-perishable foods are donated to the pantry. The pantry shelves have never been as full as they were earlier this week, Downes-Angus. It's the season for giving, she explains, which is wonderful--but the community often forgets about the pantry in spring and summer.
This week the pantry shelves are crowded. But in summer, Downes-Angus says, they are about three-fourths barren. This summer, when the number of pantry clients was soaring high, pantry volunteers were consistently spending about $3,000 on groceries each month. Laundry detergent, feminine hygiene products, kids' juice boxes and cereal are among a list of popular pantry items that are continually being donated, distributed and re-stocked.
"We are encouraging people to hold off on their food drives until January when we are low again," Downes-Angus said.
The pantry staff and clients are thankful for all donations, Downes-Angus said, but some foods are more useful than others. On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, a pile of Mrs. Smith's frozen pies grew soggy in their paper packaging on a counter top of the basement pantry. There is limited freezer and refrigerator storage in the pantry; what little space exists houses fresh meats and breads.
The pantry is stocked with donated foods by volunteer hands. There are about five steady year-round volunteers and dozens more who come and go. It receives no government aid. It partners with The Food Bank of Lower Fairfield County, which provides the pantry with 100 pounds of bread each month and discounted foods.
The Food Bank collects, sorts, stores and distributes donated foods to more than 100 area member organizations like the New Canaan Food Pantry.
The pantry shelves are open only to New Canaan residents who register for food vouchers through the Department of Human Services.