St. Mary Food Pantry expands services for the summer
By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Jewett City - posted Mon., Jul. 8, 2013
One of what Catholics refer to as the corporal works of mercy – feeding the hungry – comes to life almost weekly at St. Mary Parish in Jewett City, as parishioners and volunteers distribute groceries to their needy neighbors. Lines of local residents form at the priests’ residence twice a month, where a food pantry distributes non-perishable food.
Also, starting this summer, a produce truck from the Gemma Moran Food Bank in New London appears on the third Wednesday of every month, bringing fresh fruit, vegetables and meats. The produce truck’s second visit in June was met with a long line of people – a total of 91 families, said Deacon Paul Baillargeon, who coordinates the food pantry.
“The produce truck just fills the gap” between the bi-weekly food distribution days at the pantry, he said. Typically, between 85 and 114 families come to the rectory for non-perishables like canned goods, peanut butter, pasta and cereal.
Baillargeon said that the need for food assistance has been on a steady increase in the region, as the economy struggles to gain positive momentum. “The situation out there isn’t getting any better,” he said. “You’ve got taxes going up, gas [prices].”
While he said that sometimes he questions how clients spend the income they do have, “I’m not here to judge. They need the food, we give it.”
Cathy (not her real name) is among the regulars at the food pantry. “I run short of food during the month, and letting me pick what I need gets me through the first of the month,” she said. “It’s a great help to me and to many, many others. I don’t know what I would do without them.”
Cathy said that the pantry offers a good selection of healthy food – especially important for her since she’s diabetic. The workers are helpful and friendly, she said. “The people who are there seem to care about you, and that makes me feel comfortable. They smile like they’re so glad they could help. I always thank them, and I only take what I need, since some of the families who come are bigger than mine,” Cathy said.
While volunteers are welcome on the food distribution days to help clients shop and maintain quotas, Baillargeon said that volunteers are also needed for pick-up days at other times during the week. Every Friday, volunteers bring a truck to the Gemma Moran Food Bank warehouse in New London, where they pick up what they need to stock the shelves. On the Thursdays prior to distribution, they make a trip to the Frito-Lay plant in Dayville for chips. And for the true early riser, a 4 a.m. Wednesday morning trip to Niantic secures the breads.
Baillargeon said that those volunteers making the Friday trip must undergo a short class, in which they learn food handling regulations and “how to shop” the food bank. Able-bodied volunteers are always welcome to unload the crates once they arrive in Jewett City and to stock the shelves, he said.
Ann Olewnik has been one of the pantry’s regular volunteers for close to 10 years. She spends about three hours each Friday helping pick up food at the food bank, a schedule that meshes well with her work as owner of the Lisbon Curves. While she and other volunteers shop, others rotate food on shelves or clean out the fridge in preparation for the week’s new groceries.
But the network of help is wider than just the weekly volunteers, Olewnik said. “People are very generous when they know what the need is,” she said. “They may not be out there physically, but they’ll go get [and donate] the things we need.”
A lifelong volunteer since her high school days, Olewnik said that giving back to the community “helps to balance me out.” She works at the food pantry partly in memory of her mother, who told her stories of tough times in her own childhood. “A lot of times when there was not enough food in the house, a bag of groceries would show up on her porch,” she said. “It’s good to be able to help other people when you can.”
Baillargeon said clients are now being sent to Thames Valley Council for Community Action after their initial visit to the food pantry. There, they are interviewed in an effort to channel them to other means of help for which they may qualify, like fuel assistance. Clients are obliged to at least have an appointment date with TVCCA before the pantry can give them food a second time, he said.
Potential volunteers should call Baillargeon at the St. Mary parish office at 860-376-2044.