EAST HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The cars begin lining up as early as three hours before volunteers start distributing food. By midmorning several lines of vehicles often wrap around Rentschler Field, the stadium where the University of Connecticut plays home football games.
A regional food bank that began the drive-thru operation on April 20, initially planning for it to run only a week, has extended it at least through the end of May to meet relentless demand. Over a thousand people a day visit the distribution site, most of them experiencing food insecurity for the first time in their lives as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Sal Cianci, who lives in East Hartford with his girlfriend and two kids, went last week shortly before it opened at 8:30 a.m., but the line of cars already was backed up to the road. They returned the next day around 6:30 a.m.
Cianci is still working but his days have been cut from five to one a week at a company that provides office supplies, leaving him worried for the first time about feeding his family.
“We’re not trying to blow through our savings to eat, we have other bills,” he said.
To help some extra money, he has been selling stuff on Facebook’s marketplace.
“I’m not making a living off this stuff but if I find a baby stroller on the side of the street that’s being given away, I’ll throw it in my truck, post it online and maybe get 10 bucks,” he said. “That’s 10 bucks I don’t have to spend on groceries.”
Foodshare, a regional food bank that serves Hartford and Tolland counties, moved their operation to the stadium after outgrowing their space at Hartford Regional Market. Cars pull up, drivers open their trunks, and volunteers fill them with bread, potatoes, onions, apples and other staples.
The food bank has been giving away an average of 25,000 pounds of food a day. Typically around 1,400 cars come through daily, although some days have seen as many as 1,800. The food bank is spending about $100,000 a week and for now, Jason Jakubowski, president and chief executive officer of Foodshare, said donations of money have allowed them to keep up.
The demand also far exceeds the food bank’s expectations. A survey conducted by the volunteers found around 70% of people served had never before experienced food insecurity.
“A lot of these people who were fully employed four or five weeks ago, through no fault of their own, they are now unemployed and trying to figure out where their next meal is coming from,” Jakubowski said.
Brian McKeown was at the front of the line Friday and he said he had been waiting in his car since 5 a.m. for the food distribution.
“My son-in-law’s laid off, my daughter-in-law’s laid off and I’m handicapped and not much money is coming in,” he said, adding that he had never seen an epidemic like this before.
Nationwide, the surge in unemployment has set off a wave of hunger that has overwhelmed food programs. As many as one in four Americans may struggle to stay fed, experts say, compared with one of every eight or nine before the pandemic.
In Fairfield County, another food pantry that delivers to people’s homes is also seeing unprecedented demand.
Kathleen Purdy, founder and and chief executive officer of Hillside Food Outreach, which serves parts of Fairfield County and counties in New York state like Westchester and Putnam, said they usually cater to people who aren’t able to go to a food pantry for food like working parents with no transportation, seniors or people who are severely ill. Due to the large number of people that are quarantining, their deliveries have gone significantly up.
At the Foodshare site in East Hartford, Melissa Salgado said the donations have helped her with the ability to pay other bills because she doesn’t have to spend as much on groceries for her kids — ages 2, 3, and 6. She said she endured hunger as a child, and she is hoping to keep her children from having the same experience.
“It’s always been a struggle, waking up as a child with nothing in the fridge,” she said, “I kind of grew up with it and just want to make sure my kids don’t notice it or see it.”
Chris Ehrmann is a corps member for Report for America, a nonprofit organization that supports local news coverage, in a partnership with The Associated Press for Connecticut. The AP is solely responsible for all content.