By Bernie Beaudreau
On Thursday, July 12, we had our third monthly mobile distribution at the Naugatuck Event Center. This new Mobile Pantry site is the result of a collaborative effort with the Naugatuck Partnership for Children. The Mobile Pantry saw immediate interest at our May 10 launch, when we served 162 families, a much higher turnout than the Partnership had imagined. The evening of July 12 was our third monthly distribution and, at 480 families in attendance, we were overwhelmed. I arrived at 6:15 PM, coming from our Mobile Pantry site in the West Rock neighborhood of New Haven.
State Senator George Logan was at the Naugatuck Event Center helping to distribute food to the hundreds of families in line. As I greeted him he shared that he was surprised by the turnout and the amount of need in the community. The first 150 families had been served. Our Mobile Pantry driver, Jose Reyes, immediately caught my attention. Deeply concerned, he told me that we were going to run out of food. Jose and warehouse assistant Amalio Santiago had arrived with a full truckload of 10 pallets of our usual assortment of vegetables, fruit, and dairy products, enough for 250 to 300 households but not enough for the nearly 500 who arrived seeking food. Jose’s experience lends him the ability to quickly calculate the amount food needed for the number of people gathered. He had no doubt this time that we were in trouble. Our entire team was distressed at the thought of turning people away empty-handed. Jose quickly improvised a plan to give those we couldn’t serve a “rain check” and he immediately cleared with Craig Keller, our director of operations, to add a delivery to our schedule for coming back to the same site the next Thursday. Director Jill Mahoney and her team from the Naugatuck Partnership for Children agreed to staff up for next week and we had a plan.
Jill asked if I would speak to the more than 100 people still in line and waiting patiently to give them the awkward news that we had run out of food but had a plan. I turned to the many worried faces of moms and dads with children and babies in tow, the elderly, and some disabled folks who had been waiting for more than two hours. I apologized and told them that they would be first in line next week when the truck returned with more food. While I was engaged addressing the many individual concerns customers were raising, Craig Keller had done some quick work behind the scenes to contact our other Mobile Pantry driver, Pete Bellacicco, who was just wrapping up at the New Haven site and directed him to come to Naugatuck. It was almost 7 PM and it would be another half hour before he would arrive. I shared the better news that another food truck was on its way to the relief of so many still waiting. Most decided to stay. Some left with their rain checks for next week as they had to get back to children waiting at home or other family responsibilities.
What amazed me was the quiet and gracious acceptance of the bad news. Not a single person complained, and I heard many expressions of thanks. It strangely reminded me of the same kind quiet acceptance I witnessed in 1985 in the famine fields of Ethiopia as masses of people waited for life-saving food. While we were not witnessing starvation in Naugatuck, the worried faces there pelted me with the sense of anxiety and deep deprivation that accompanies the insult of hunger and food insecurity in our country of great abundance.
Pete arrived by 7:30 PM and we quickly set up in the parking lot and soon were serving all who had waited, about another 100 families. Jill Mahoney and her volunteers were amazing. They had some very helpful teenagers pulling wagons to help older folks and moms with children to carry their food to their cars. There was a constant stream of thanks and expressions of relief and gratitude. We served close to 400 people and another 80 were given rain checks for next week. Our team, Jose, Pete, Amalio, and Craig were equally amazing. Their passion and dedication to our mission was clearly demonstrated. I am grateful for their talent and quick thinking to solve our immediate crisis last evening in Naugatuck.
I wonder what the August numbers will be like at this Naugatuck food distribution. We will prepare to make sure there’s enough food. Perhaps we will need two truckloads delivered and more staff assigned. We might ask Jill and her team to pre-register people so that we can know how much food to deliver. At some point we may have to limit the number of people we can serve unless we can apply greater resources. I am confident that with support from our generous donors, the partnership with Jill Mahoney and her great volunteers with Naugatuck Partnership for Children, and with the ingenuity of our Connecticut Food Bank team, we will certainly find a way to address the hunger we have witnessed in the Naugatuck Valley.
Those who face the daily struggle to put food on their tables deserve no less than our greatest effort.