Wealthy Suburbs Not Immune To Hunger Struggle

This week in Avon, 169 people waited in line at the Avon Mobile FoodShare at the Church of St. Ann on West Avon Road. Every other Tuesday, the mobile foodshare serves about 150 people from Simsbury, Canton and Avon. (Patrick Raycraft, Hartford Courant / July 12, 2011)

7:07 p.m. EDT, July 16, 2011

For 28 years, Cathy Hartley of Glastonbury brought home a good paycheck from her job at Aetna.

But last Tuesday, she was in line with her two young granddaughters for free produce from Mobile Foodshare at the First Church of Christ Congregational on Main Street.

For Hartley, who said she was laid off from her job as a project manager about six years ago and then laid off from a subsequent job two years ago, every little bit helps. Her eligibility for unemployment ran out two months ago.

"It supplements our food," Hartley said of the Foodshare truck. "They've been very helpful, and it's fresh, healthy food."

Hartley is among a growing number of people who live in Connecticut's upper-middle class suburbs and who need help putting food on the table.

"Not a week goes by that we don't hear at a mobile site or … from a pantry somewhere saying this family came in that said 'I used to give to this program. I never thought I'd need help, but I got laid off or my wife got laid off or we both got laid off, and here we are because we need to feed our kids,'" said Gloria McAdam, president and CEO of Foodshare.

Since the Great Recession started, Foodshare, a Bloomfield-based nonprofit that serves as the food bank for Hartford and Tolland counties, has expanded its mobile program to towns like Glastonbury, Avon and Hebron.

The Mobile Foodshare program fills trucks with donated produce and sends them to different sites every day. It started with deliveries in places like Hartford and New Britain, and now makes nearly 50 stops in 20 towns.

Food pantries in these and other seemingly idyllic communities are serving a population that is growing at a rapid rate.

Foodshare served 128,000 people in Connecticut last year, or one in eight. Of those, 50,000 were children, according to McAdam. That's up from 100,000 people just two years ago, an increase that can be attributed to need and not just Foodshare's growth, she said.

"The need has grown by 30 percent, but we're only growing 3 or 4 percent each year," she said.

In Glastonbury, usage of the social services department's food bank has tripled since the 2007-2008 fiscal year, said Janine Fiedler, social services coordinator. That year saw 153 people visit the food bank, compared with 450 in 2010-2011.

"I can say that we've been having people come in and say, 'Well, we always gave to the food bank, and now we have to receive,'" Fiedler said. "It's true — people are in their houses and have their mortgages and then they get laid off. Where does the money come from?"

Hartley, whose husband teaches at Guitar Star Studio, is one of those people.

"I made a lot of money at Aetna. Every year, I got stars on my performance reviews," she said. And then one day, she said, she was asked to pack up her desk and leave by the time the Christmas luncheon ended.

"I try to accept the fact that here is where I am right now," said Hartley, who cares for her three grandchildren while her daughter works. "God must have wanted me to be a full-time grandma at some point in my life."

In Avon, the number of households using the food bank at the Church of St. Ann has tripled in the past two or three years, according to Alan Rosenberg, the town's director of social services. In June, 94 households, or 263 people, were served, he said.

"In the old days, it would be 25 or 30 households," Rosenberg said. "There are around 300 families that are actually eligible. That's gone up at least double in the past couple years."

Avon had 140 eligible households in 2008.

"In addition to [single-parent households or a household headed by an elderly or disabled individual], we are seeing many more traditionally structured families, typically consisting of two parents with two to three children," he said.

In Simsbury, the town's "Cheese Day" program, where qualified families receive bags full of fresh food and canned goods, has increased almost 200 percent to 206 people from 70 in 2006-2007. Usage of the weekly "Bread Day" program has gone up 400 percent, from 10 people each week to 50 people.

"It's not huge numbers, but for a suburb to go up that much in a few years is unusual," said Mickey Lecours-Beck, director of social services in Simsbury.

The sheer numbers of hungry people may not compare to those in the inner cities, but the rates at which the numbers are increasing are high for suburban towns.

"It surprises people that it's not just the Staffords and the Rockvilles of the suburbs, but we also have mobile sites in Glastonbury, Farmington and Avon," McAdam said, "suburbs that you think of as being wealthy."

Many local food services are aimed at getting people back on their feet until they can find another job. McAdam said that about one-third of Foodshare's clients use the program for six months or less, one-third use it for six to 18 months, and the rest use it for the long term, usually because of a disability or another hurdle.

"There will always be people who need assistance, whether for the short term or the long term, but it doesn't have to be one out of eight of our neighbors," she said.

Until places like Foodshare can reach their ultimate goal — eliminating hunger — they try to arm people with the tools necessary to rectify their situations. They make sure eligible clients are enrolled in the federal food stamp program, and provide as much fresh food as possible.

"We're one of the few people that would like to be out of work because there wasn't a need for us to be doing what we're doing anymore," McAdam said. "I think there'll always be a need for what we do, but I believe that need could be smaller."

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