Food pantries see increased need as holidays near

Lorraine Masterson pushes her cart full of groceries from the Ecumenical Food Bank on Spring Street in Naugatuck. Each patron receives enough food for three days, three meals per day.

NAUGATUCK — With the holidays fast approaching, local food banks are preparing for a rise in customers that usually comes this time of the year.

Last year, lines at the Ecumenical Food Bank on Spring Street in Naugatuck snaked out the door and down the street to Edible Dreams Bakery on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, according to volunteer Dan Albert.

That was in addition to 252 holiday baskets the food bank prepared at St. Michael’s Church. There were 62 families that day last year, compared to an average of about 40. Volunteers at the food bank expect an even bigger turnout this year.

By the end of September, the food bank had served 73,431 meals, compared to 69,210 by the same time last year.

The food bank, which is run by the Naugatuck/Beacon Falls Conference of Churches, plans to prepare 285 holiday meals this year, including turkeys, green beans, corn, cranberry sauce, carrots, and coffee. Only those selected by invitation will receive baskets, but the stand-by list for any unclaimed boxes is growing.

Volunteers will work all day Sunday to prepare the boxes to give out Monday morning.

The annual event is quite a production, but the everyday running of the small storefront on Spring Street is a tight operation.

“We all know what needs to be done and how to do it in the most efficient way,” Albert said.

His personal specialty is breaking up cardboard boxes, but other volunteers pack bags for families of various sizes and distribute them to customers.

“It’s always a crazy busy place, but as you can see, we’ve got a lot of helpers,” said Marty-Lee Fenton, president of the food bank. “They’re like a well-run machine.”

She said many of the volunteers come each week.

“They’ve just become a family,” Fenton said. “Our pay is lots of hugs.”

In September and October, the food bank’s shelves were bare.

“We had nothing,” said volunteer Gerhard Roland. “It was one of the roughest months I’ve seen in two years,” Roland said.

Now, those shelves are full again, thanks to recent Boy Scout and fire fighter food drives, Roland said. He said the food bank should be stocked through the end of the year.

Even though food donations decrease over the summer, the food bank’s client base stays consistent throughout the year, Roland said.

“When the summer comes, you’ll see the bare shelves,” Albert said.

In fact, the demand has been increasing for the past several years. So far this year, the bank has supplied 131 new families and many families keep coming back.

“I don’t think the economy is getting any better. … People don’t have jobs,” Roland said.

Albert said the amount of clients has doubled since he started volunteering in 2006.

“We have yet to turn anybody away,” Albert said.

Anyone who can prove they live in Naugatuck or Beacon Falls or belong to one of the participating churches can come to the center, which is open on Tuesdays and Fridays. Patrons receive a nutritionally balanced supply of food for three days, three meals a day, for each member of the family. The Emergency Food Assistance Program is for individuals with an annual income of less than $25,500 and a family of four earning less than $52,500, but the bank doesn’t require proof of income.

“Our theory is, if they’re willing to take what we give them and they want it, then they need it,” Fenton said.

Lorraine Masterson, 61, has been a patron at the food bank ever since she lost her full-time job three years ago.

The data entry specialist, whose last full-time job was at a warehouse in Beacon Falls that went out of business, said she’s been trying to find another job, but it’s been hard. She said the last good-paying job was 20 years ago when she worked at City Trust, which went bankrupt.

“You really cannot find a decent job any more,” she said.

Now she just wants to retire, but said she can’t afford to do so in Connecticut and plans to move to the Carolinas in a few years.

A parishioner at St. Francis Church, Masterson said she used to give to the food bank.

“I’d rather give than receive,” she said.

Ellen Rooney, a volunteer at the Ecumenical Food Bank in Naugatuck, bags groceries for low-income individuals and families. The food bank is expecting a lot of customers next week for Thanksgiving.

Masterson receives $200 a month in food stamps, but that doesn’t last the whole month, she said.

“That last week is a killer,” Masterson said.

Thanks to the food bank, she is able to fill in those gaps.

“We just do what we can, the best we can … there’s very few people who go out of here unhappy,” Fenton said.

A food drive for the food bank will be held Dec. 11 and 12 at Stop & Shop in the Mountview Plaza in Naugatuck. Anyone who wishes to donate to the food bank can send a contribution to Ecumenical Food Bank, P.O. Box 796, Naugatuck, CT 06770 or call the food bank at (203) 723-1922 and leave a message.

Generosity keeps St. Michael’s shelves stocked

In addition to the Ecumenical Food Bank in Naugatuck, Beacon Falls residents have an additional option for emergency supplies. St. Michael’s Church runs a supplementary food bank by appointment once a month.

“We feel if we’re lucky enough to have what we have, we feel it’s also time to help someone else out,” said Sue Genz, who runs the pantry.

Food drives by Beacon Hose Company No. 1 and local Boy Scouts sustain the bank through the winter and a Post Office food drive keeps the honey flowing from spring through November, according to Genz.

“We’re constantly full. We’re really lucky. … The people in town are always so generous, including the kids,” Genz said.

She said about between 26 and 32 patrons come every month to pick up boxes in the church rectory. Sometimes, patrons only come once. Others come regularly.

“Once they’re on their feet, they give back to us,” Genz said.

Genz has been running the pantry for 10 years, and she says it was around long before she came on board.

The pantry usually only supplies non-perishable items, but for the holidays, patrons can pick up either a turkey or a gift certificate to a local grocery store.

“We do notice an increase around holiday time,” Genz said.

Genz said United Day School recently collected 53 boxes of stuffing to add to the holiday cheer.

“Those are preschoolers learning about community service,” Genz said.

Anyone who wishes to donate can leave non-perishable items including soup, pasta, canned goods, and dry goods at the St. Michael’s rectory in a designated area near the entrance of church.

Beacon Falls residents can also donate to the annual Scouting for Food drive Nov 19. Cub Scout Pack 2010 distributed collection bags Nov. 12 and will return to pick up the filled bags on Nov. 19.