SHELTON — When volunteers began the biannual “Harvest House” food drives in Shelton in 2005, the tens of thousands of donated food items collected each time would stock the shelves of the Valley’s food banks for months.
These days not so much, according to the Patricia Tarasovic, director of the Valley United Way’s Volunteer Action Center.
“It would stay several months in the beginning,” Tarasovic said of the Harvest House donations. “By 2013, I clearly saw that it was lasting a lot shorter amount of time.”
Tarasovic brought the information up with fellow members of the Valley Council for Health and Human Services, a coalition of nonprofits that identifies solutions to problems in the Valley.
“I said ‘I really think we have a food insecurity problem in the Valley based on that data alone,’” Tarasovic said. “Because it was really the first time that collecting the food pantries together, they were giving us the message that this was happening.”
On Monday Tarasovic and TEAM Inc. President and CEO David Morgan, co-chairs of a task force formed by the council to look into the issue, announced a grant that will help the Valley’s food banks work together better to help people struggling to provide food for their families.
Tarasovic and Morgan talked about the issue during a podcast interview with the Valley Indy’s Eugene Driscoll last week. The episode was sponsored by ValleyGivesBack.org.
Click play to listen.
At a press conference at the Valley United Way offices in Shelton they were joined by leaders from five food banks in the Valley:
- The Seymour-Oxford Food Bank
- St. Vincent de Paul in Derby
- Shelton’s Spooner House
- Ansonia’s Kathleen Samela Food Pantry at Christ Episcopal Church
- The Salvation Army in Ansonia
Ansonia Mayor David Cassetti and Derby Mayor Richard Dziekan were also in attendance.
The grant — from the Valley Community Foundation — totals $42,000 over three years.
Most of the money will go toward the hiring of an expert consultant to help the food banks do things like standardize practices, as well as raise awareness of food insecurity in the Valley and increase community engagement and support.
Though a 2014 study looked at the issue of “food insecurity” in the Valley, officials from area nonprofits said they sometimes have a hard time quantifying just how widespread the problem is.
Part of the issue, Morgan said, is how local groups report their work. While one food bank may measure the number of “meals” provided, another may use boxes or bags of food, Morgan said.
“We’re not able to really define the scope of that need,” he said.
A first step in the standardization effort came at Monday’s press conference.
Here is coverage of the press event from WTNH:
Tarasovic announced an anonymous donor had agreed to pay for scales to be installed at all of the food banks to measure their output in pounds of food provided. She thanked Valley United Way President Sharon Gibson for securing the commitment.
Morgan said the value of the donation was significant.
“We will begin to give clarity on what that need looks like,” he said.
Anecdotally, leaders of the Valley’s food banks said they’re busier than ever.
They said that could be an indication both of more people struggling to put food on the table, as well as efforts to publicize their work being successful.
Socioeconomic indicators show that the need is more acute in distressed communities like Derby and Ansonia, where more than half of the school district’s students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch.
But as officials pointed out Monday, that doesn’t mean that people from Oxford, Seymour, and Shelton aren’t having trouble either.
Remy Kocurek, from Derby’s St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Shop and Food Bank, said a life setback can mean tough choices for anybody.
“Sometimes it’s health, sometimes it’s someone in the house gets sick, (or) someone got downsized and lost their job and is scrambling and they’re living on one income and often they have difficult choices to make with whatever funds they have,” she said.
“If I can get some food from you then maybe I can afford some medicine or keep the heat on when it’s cold outside,” Kocurek said. “I see that across my desk all the time.”
Tarasovic said the task force expects to make an announcement this week about the consultant to be hired using the VCF grant.
In addition, Valley United Way President Sharon Gibson announced plans to expand the group’s “Grow Your Own” community gardens program after successful pilot gardens last year — two in Ansonia and one in Derby.
Gibson said more gardens will be planted this year in those two cities, as well as another in Seymour near the town’s community center.
People wishing to donate directly to Valley food banks can do so through the Valley United Way website.