by Bernie Beaudreau
In New Haven on a hot and humid Thursday afternoon in July, rain storms were in the forecast. People began lining up in a parking lot near the John Martinez on James Street around 3 PM, a full two hours before the Connecticut Food Bank Mobile Pantry food distribution time of 5 PM. Securing a place in line seems to be the main concern of our Mobile Pantry customers. We do our best to assure them we will have enough food for everyone. Our specially equipped truck carries 8,000 pounds of food, enough to serve up to 400 people. Yet customers insist arriving early to claim their place in line, despite summer’s heat or winter’s freezing winds.
When our truck arrived at 4:15PM, there were already more than 100 people waiting in line, mostly women and many with their children. A few small trees provided shade in the islands of the parking lot, but most everyone stood in the hot afternoon sun until about a half hour before distribution time, when the sky became heavy with dark clouds — no thunder; just a fast-approaching, menacing sky. Our policy is to cancel distribution in an electrical storm.
Fred and Pete, the Connecticut Food Bank staff running the pantry, hurried the set-up, hoping to beat the rain. A team of volunteers arrived to help set up tables on either side of the truck and unload boxes of lettuce, radishes, potatoes, onions, carrots, watermelon, bread, yogurt, milk and other donated nutritional items. There were about 170 people waiting by the time we opened the pantry line.
Ten minutes into the distribution, the skies opened, pouring torrents of rain. The raised awnings of the Mobile Pantry protected the food and volunteers, but our determined customers were waiting in the downpour for their turn to circle the truck and load their bags with fresh foods. Then came a microburst.
The wind blasted our line of customers and rocked the truck, blowing one awning backwards with tremendous force, bending the struts and creating a bulging pool of water in the canopy. I made a cut in the awning with my pocket knife, releasing a stream of water down the backs of our volunteers. We could hear fearful shouts of customers reacting to the blasts of wind and rain.
Fearing for everyone’s safety, Fred attempted to stop the distribution and pleaded for everyone to get back to their vehicles and wait out the storm. Nobody moved. Repeatedly, Fred shouted out to ask people to get out of the storm but they stood there determined to wait for their food. The wind was driving the rain sideways. Children huddled by their moms. A few people had planned ahead and pulled out large plastic sheets to cover a dozen or more people. The storm subsided after about 15 minutes, but by then the pace of distribution was frantic.
In the end, it seemed that all had been were served, except one late visitor. Pete, Fred and I were packing up our supplies and dismantling the bent awning that still stuck out six feet off the side of the truck when a man came running up to us. He had walked to the distribution and apologized that he was caught in the storm and couldn’t get there on time. He said he had no food at home. I was amazed at Pete’s patience and ultimate customer service when, after the strain of the event, he turned to the man, smiled and asked, “How can I help you?” Pete and Fred reopened the truck and filled bags with as much food as the man could carry on foot. He walked back to his neighborhood relieved, a happy and grateful customer.
The distribution was a harrowing event for all involved and we are grateful no one was hurt. The $3,000 in damage to the awning should be covered by our insurance. But frankly, it shook us up a bit. Reviewing the event with Pete and Fred, we wondered what we could have done differently. The storm hit with little warning. What bothered us most was seeing our customers enduring the punishing and dangerous weather to keep their place in the line, even when we implored them to seek shelter. The desperation of hunger and the need for food is more than we could possibly imagine. This sobering event reminded me how vital our lifeline of food is for so many people.
Three weeks into our second year, the Connecticut Food Bank summer food distribution program has already served hundreds of families and individuals who are benefiting from the fresh food and produce. Summertime puts increased food pressures on families with school children due to loss of school meals, amounting to about 100 meals per child that already struggling families must replace over the course of the summer recess. We began this program last summer in New Haven with six sites scheduled every two weeks for the months of July and August. This summer, we continued with sites in New Haven and expanded to Bridgeport, Stratford, Stamford, Ansonia and East Hampton. We can’t always count on good weather. And our customers are more than willing to wait in uncomfortable conditions to get the food they desperately need. But with the help of so many donors and volunteers on whom we can count, it is a desperation that we are determined to end.