In the Valley, a Growing ‘Empathy Movement’ is Feeding the Hungry

Nov 18, 2021 - by Jodie Gil, Correspondent - Valley Independent Sentinal - As the notion of food insecurity becomes more talked about, grassroots efforts in the Valley seek to get more food in the hands of people who need it - while removing the stigma of needing help.

In many cases, that’s done through 24-hour, no-questions-asked food pantries — part of the national ​“Little Free Pantry” movement with the motto: ​“Take what you need. Give what you can.” Four such pantries in the last three years have been built at churches and front yards in Ansonia and Seymour.

“Part of my goal with the pantry is to try to eliminate the shame and the stigma,” said Jenny Rice, who opened ​“The Little Free Pantry on Skokorat,” at 58 Skokorat St. in Seymour in July 2020. ​“That’s part of the reason the pantry is open to everybody, so people don’t feel bad about coming.”

Rice said her family could have used something like the pantry growing up. “There were times my mother and father would go without so we could eat,” Rice said. ​“It was something we didn’t talk about. My parents were ashamed, when in reality, it’s really hard for people now to get by on two incomes.”

The Blessings Pantry at Trinity Episcopal Church at 91 Church St. in Seymour opened in 2020, while The Little Free Pantry on Church, at 3 Church St. in Ansonia, opened in 2019.

Both are 24-hour open access, no-questions-asked pantries that rely heavily on donations from the community.

“It’s a big deal that it’s anonymous because a lot of people have experienced shame,” said Rev. Tricia Pasley of Trinity Church in Seymour.

Another pantry, ​“Our Daily Bread Little Free Pantry,” opened at Abundant Life Fellowship Ministries at 195 N. Main St. in Ansonia over the summer.

“We were finding the church itself was getting quite a bit of visitors who needed food,” said Leslie Youngblood, the first lady of the church.

With scaled-back worship hours during COVID, “we saw that we now needed to find another way to help people when we are not there,” Youngblood said.

The pantry is stocked with donations every three days, after volunteers check expiration dates and quality, Youngblood said.

The need is constant.  “Folks take the food out very quickly,” Youngblood said. “They’re kind of waiting for us to put the food in it, and it goes very quickly.”

Coordinating Efforts

The 24-hour pantries complement an existing Valley network of resources, including traditional food banks, church pantries, Meals on Wheels and senior meal programs.

Valley leaders have been laser-focused on food insecurity since 2014, when the Valley Council for Health and Human Services launched its Food Security Task Force.

Community services agencies, including Team, Inc. and Valley United Way, collaborated as part of the task force to study the issue of hunger in the Valley, publishing a 70-page report in 2018.

Since the study was published, the task force has worked to connect the existing pantries, distribute healthier food, and buy food at wholesale prices to make donation dollars go further.

The need continues to grow, according to David Morgan, the executive director of TEAM and chair of the Valley Council for Health and Human Services.

The 2018 DataHaven Community Wellbeing Survey found 11 percent of respondents in the Valley reported food insecurity, with about a quarter of those struggling to afford food every month.

In 2020, the Valley United Way reported that 8 percent of households in the lower Naugatuck Valley are at or below the federal poverty level, and another 32 percent are over the poverty line, but make less than the cost of living for the region, increasing from 2018 levels.

For those families that don’t qualify for food assistance, no-questions-asked pantries help make it easier to afford rising costs in other areas. But it’s not enough to launch new pantries, Morgan said. The community needs to address the other issues that cause or propel poverty, he said.

“Is Team’s job just to make poverty livable? To accept the reality that we need more food pantries,” Morgan said. “Or are we bigger and better than that?”

A Shift In Perspective

The national Little Free Pantry movement is focused on neighbors helping each other, blurring lines between the servers and the served.

“We want to build with, instead of for,” Rice said.

That change of framing fits with a growing philosophy about community building that puts residents in charge of change. Team, Inc. hired an independent consultant, Ben Fink, to employ the strategy in the region.

“We’ve got to be working on ending the conditions that lead people to need housing and food assistance,” Fink said. ​“The only way to do that is to work at the grassroots level, making it possible for people of all kinds to tell their own stories, recognize their own common grounds, and build together. Otherwise, we’re just doing Band-Aids.”

Fink has been meeting with groups in Ansonia, Derby, Milford, Oxford and Seymour, training them to organize and push their own agendas. The Ansonia-Derby group has focused its efforts around housing insecurity, hosting a forum in March. The Oxford group is focused on holding local officials accountable for federal relief dollars. The Milford group is the furthest along in terms of organization and publicity.

All In for Seymour

In Seymour, the effort is in the early stages and is focused on access to food.

Rice has started coordinating with Pasley of Trinity Church to cross promote the two Seymour pantries. They’ve joined a group of other community leaders, including the Rev. Allyson Glass, from Seymour Congregational Church, and Selectman Rob VanEgghen, to form ​“All In for Seymour.”

At a meeting Nov. 14 at Seymour Congregational Church, the group sat around a coffee table adorned with a baked brie snack and Katie Martin’s 2021 book, ​“Reinventing Food Banks and Pantries: New Tools to End Hunger.”

Fink asked them where they would like to be as a group one year from today. Pushing the agenda in Hartford. Name recognition in the community. More pantries. More fun events that draw people together.

The community events are key to shifting the focus to neighborhood building.

“It’s an empathy movement,” Rice said to the group. “We are only as well off as our most marginalized.”

To that end, the group is hosting a community dinner on Nov. 21 at Trinity Church. Walk-ins are welcome.

Instead of being a place to provide food to those in need, the community dinner is pitched as a meeting place for those who donate or receive from the pantries to meet and become more connected.

“Sitting around the table is where you gain trust and get connected,” said Glass. “Food is a great connector.”

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