Wealthier communities see increase in need for food pantries

CAFCA | March 27, 2014 |

 On a recent afternoon, Rosetta Stewart, 79, and her daughter, Diane, stood outside a long white truck parked at the West Suffield Congregational Church. The back of the vehicle read, "When hunger stops, so will we."

Foodshare's mobile food bank first rolled in to Suffield in September 2012, and the amount of food it's distributed has risen steadily since.

"Even though this town is a rich town, there are people who are in need here," said Diane Stewart, 53, a single mother of two who says she was laid off from a full-time retail job three years ago and has been able to find only part-time work since.

In 2012, Foodshare's truck distributed 8,357 pounds of food in four months. That's equivalent to 2,089 pounds a month. In 2013, when the truck rolled throughout the entire year, 30,043 pounds of food were distributed. That's about 2,503 pounds a month.

More residents in Connecticut communities with median household incomes near or above $100,000 are relying on food pantries, records from the state's two main food-distribution organizations, Foodshare and Connecticut Food Bank, indicate.

Among the towns that are receiving goods from food pantries — stationary and mobile — are Simsbury, Avon, Glastonbury and Ridgefield, according to the data.

"Hunger affects everybody in every community," said Mark Cherrington, a spokesman for Foodshare, which serves Hartford and Tolland counties.

The amount of food being distributed in those counties generally has increased from 2012 to 2013, according to statistics provided by Connecticut Food Bank and Foodshare.

Numbers provided by Foodshare, which serves towns including Avon (2011 median household income: $107,733); Glastonbury ($104,962); and Simsbury ($116,553), and Connecticut Food Bank, which serves towns including Ridgefield ($145,000), show the total number of pounds of food distributed in those towns rising 16 percent, from 248,010 pounds in 2012 to 287,465 pounds in 2013.

"I think it would come as a surprise to many people," said Mary Ingarra, spokesperson for Connecticut Food Bank, which serves Litchfield, Fairfield, New Haven, Middlesex, New London, and Windham counties.

Food pantry officials acknowledge that not everyone retrieving food from a pantry in an affluent community has to come from a wealthy background. Some are arriving from neighboring towns, particularly to the mobile food pantry sites, which show up in the form of trucks that park in church and other lots a couple of times a month. Other food recipients are blue-collar workers, like waitresses and custodians, who may live in parts of the rich towns but are barely eking out a living.

But joining them on the food lines are those who grew accustomed to living on $100,000 a year, food-pantry officials say. They blame the economy for the change. Residents once flush with cash are now having trouble making ends meet. They have been laid off and are unable to find new, comparable jobs over extended periods of time. Their unemployment insurance payments have been exhausted and their savings have been wiped out.

Overall, Foodshare distributed 14.3 million pounds of food statewide in 2013, a 19 percent increase over 2012's 12 million pounds. Connecticut Food Bank gave out 20.8 million pounds of food in 2013 versus 18.7 million pounds in 2012 — an 11 percent jump.

"I find it really scary after 30 years of doing this that the number keeps going up instead of down, especially when we have people who have played by all the rules," Foodshare President Gloria McAdam said. "They end up in the line to get free food. There's something wrong with that."

Ross Fraser, a spokesman for Feeding America, the national food bank network that includes Connecticut Food Bank and Foodshare, said the trend has not gone unnoticed in other parts of the country. He said the number of people seeking free food in Virginia's affluent Loudoun County, where the U.S. Census shows the median household income is about $120,000 a year, has quadrupled in recent years.

"A lot of people have lost good paying jobs," he said, "but they have too many assets to qualify for food stamps."

In Connecticut, middle-class communities continue to see an increased need for food. Communities that have seen increases include Portland, where the median household income is $93,438; Suffield, $89,802; Southbury, $77,177, and West Hartford, $80,061. The 2011 household incomes are all according to Connecticut Economic Resource Center's most recent report.

In Portland, a 62-year-old woman left the senior center with bags filled with food hanging heavily from her hands. The woman, who declined to give her full name, explained that she was a professional who had been laid off a year ago and hasn't found a job since.

The woman said she was collecting food not only for herself, but for seniors in her nearby hometown of East Hampton, where the CERC reports the median household income as $91,770. She explained that her elderly neighbors are too proud to visit Connecticut Food Bank's mobile food pantry, where carrots, cabbage, broccoli, apples and other goods were being distributed.

For her, the free goods cut food expenses in half — leaving more money to pay the mortgage and oil, which is so expensive she keeps the heat on 48 degrees.

"That's such a huge help," she said.

Connecticut Food Bank established Portland as a stop for its mobile food pantry in July 2012. That year 15,496 pounds of food were distributed, or an average of 2,582 pounds a month. In 2013, 34,800 pounds of food were given out, equivalent to 2,900 pounds a month.

More recently, Foodshare has established mobile food-pantry sites in upscale Granby and Simsbury.

The site in Granby, where the median household income is $99,190, was established in February 2013 and attracted, on average, 86 people per distribution. More than 41,400 pounds of food was given away at the Waste Not Want Not Community Kitchen at South Congregational Church.

The Simsbury site, established in January 2013, has a similar story. Despite the town's high median household income, 54 people on average attended each distribution at First Church of Christ. Nearly 24,000 pounds of food were given out.

Foodshare officials recently were abuzz about West Hartford, where 170 people showed up at a mobile food-pantry site — 20 percent more than usual. More than 138,000 pounds of food were distributed at West Hartford's three mobile pantry sites in 2013, a nearly 33 percent jump over 2012's approximately 104,000 pounds.

"It doesn't take much to tip a family from being self-sufficient to being in line for food," McAdam said.

And Ingarra can't seem to shake the image of a well-dressed family that showed up at Connecticut Food Bank's Southbury food pantry in an SUV. Ingarra recalls the woman, who was traveling with two teenage boys, explaining that her husband had been laid off and that the family was in danger of losing its home.

"It's not always who you think," Ingarra said.

Cherrington said, "It could be your own neighbor."