The Cheshire Community Food Pantry, located in Cheshire, Connecticut, began at the Saint Bridget of Sweden Church in 1934. Jack Ebert of Driven Media Management sat down with Kerry Walsh, the Executive Director, to learn more about the pantry's history, how they navigated the COVID-19 pandemic and how the community can become involved.
"It was just a closet in the church where people would bring in items for other needy members of the church," Walsh recalled, "Whoever needed something could go into this closet. So our history is very long in Cheshire."
Since then, the food pantry has continued expanding. Once they needed a larger space at Saint Bridget's, there was an extra shed that was used for quite a while. After the shed, they used a garage space on the church's property.
Once there was no longer enough space at the church, the pantry moved to Railroad Avenue and rented out a space. Although, it was still a small space– much like a one-car garage.
"It was very, very crammed," Walsh laughed, "There were volunteers trying to do what we still do here, but on a much smaller scale."
Finally, five years ago, the current Cheshire Community Food Pantry building was built. Father Bob of Saint Bridget's envisioned a free-standing food pantry without any church affiliation.
"So, it's been about thirteen years that we've been a standalone pantry and five years since they built this building," Walsh said, "They built this building from the ground up and designed it for us. It includes the walk-in refrigerator and freezer, loading docks, all the warehouse shelving, all that stuff."
Pandemic Fluctuates Workload
Since the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the world, the Cheshire Community Food Pantry has experienced a substantial uptick in workload.
"The workload has increased because there's more clients, but also because there's more donors," Walsh explained, "And I think a lot of it is we're saving food that would normally be thrown away."
For example, the food pantry has a frozen section with ice cream and things of that nature.
"It's not stuff that we're spending money to purchase. It's just something that is an extra bonus, and our clients absolutely love it," Walsh said.
Since the food pantry is also located in Cheshire, they are uniquely positioned near distribution centers. If trucking companies take a double purchase order or are stuck with pallets of product, they have to contact their dispatch and figure out how to dispose of the product.
"The majority of truckers or dispatchers in the country just say find a dumpster and toss it, which is awful," Walsh said, "We have to work on that as well. But we are located right here."
If any dispatchers say to donate the product, though, then the truckers are responsible to find a location that is open and will be accessible to an eighteen wheeler truck.
"We fit all those categories and are very close. So we benefit from excess food pretty much everyday," Walsh explained.
When The Pandemic First Hit
Now that the world has adjusted– somewhat– to a "new normal", the food pantry has figured out how to operate in these new circumstances. While the pandemic first hit, though, it was not so easy.
"Well, the first thing that happened was everyone over sixty years old was cut from everywhere. So, we lost all our volunteers and there were literally three of us who ran this whole operation for ten weeks," Walsh said.
While demand for food was skyrocketing, the community would arrive in their vehicles. Walsh drove to pick-up all of the products and answered phones, while two other pantry workers stocked shelves and packed items for clients.
This was also a hard time to navigate choices. Pre-pandemic, there was a push for all food pantries to allow for client choice of items. This also saves a lot of food, since you are not giving clients pre-packaged boxes that include items they are allergic to or cannot physically/medically eat.
"So we pride ourselves on being client-choice, but then the pandemic took that all away. There wasn't a way for us to still allow the choice, it just logistically wasn't possible," Walsh said.
So, the pantry packaged the basics in boxes, depending on the size of the family. Luckily though, the pantry always had enough food.
The Staff Behind The Pantry
Before the pandemic, the Cheshire food pantry had over one hundred volunteers who rotated in and out on a weekly basis. During and since the pandemic, though, the food pantry did lose a lot of older people. Still, others in the community who were able to stepped up to the plate.
"What happened was people who were able to just added on extra days here. So, we're very lucky that we have this base of volunteers that's so committed here almost every day," Walsh said.
The food pantry has also drawn in a slew of new volunteers, too.
"We re-started the high school club, which includes a lot of kids, and they come after school or on days off," Walsh explained, "So it works and everyone kind of all works together."
How To Become A Client Of The Cheshire Community Food Pantry
In order to become a client of the food pantry, there are some necessary steps that you will need to take.
"You have to reach out to the town and social services department– that's either through the regular Department of Social Services or the Senior Center– and then the people at town hall ask for specific documents," Walsh explained.
To become a client, you will have to show proof of residency, a utility bill and a bank statements in order to prove that you are in need.
"That process normally takes a day or so. Then, you'll get a piece of paper or they'll send us an email that says this family is approved," Walsh said.
If you are in need of food that day, though, do not fret. The Cheshire Community Food Pantry will not turn you away.
"If they come to the door, we always give a person some emergency food to get them through a couple of days until they figure out their situation," Walsh said, "It's not a common situation though, since I think Cheshire is a tight-knit community where all of the agencies work together."
Pandemic or Not, It Is Heartbreaking To See People Struggle
"During the pandemic, we saw full families driving around from food pantry to food pantry, wherever they could find them, looking for food to help their family," Walsh recalled, "It was heartbreaking."
Then, just last week, Walsh explained that another woman from Waterbury came into the food pantry.
"Her husband died of COVID-19 and she has breast cancer. It's absolutely heart wrenching," Walsh said, "So you know, we gave her food and then the resource sheet of other places. But it was heartbreaking to give her that paperwork."
Walsh explained to the lady that she needed a case manager or a social worker to help her navigate through this. When the lady called though, she was overwhelmed by questions that she did not have the answers to.
"So I think in general, if people work in the social service industry– I know there's a lot of negatives sometimes– but you cannot take it out on your clients. The reason we are all here is our clients and I've brought that mentality to this pantry," Walsh said, "I don't care which direction anything's going, or who's the perfect person in volunteer world. We are here for the best interests of the clients, period."
One Thousand More Families Are Struggling in Cheshire, Too
Currently, there are about one thousand more families who really do need help but have not reached out.
A majority of the food pantry's clients are employed yet they still cannot make ends meet to cover their bills, feed their kids and eat three healthy meals a day themselves. But by sheer percentages, there should be more visiting the pantry.
"And I think it's higher than that in this town. So it's either they don't know about our resources, or they think that it's a food pantry just for the homeless or a specific population," Walsh said, "Or, they are too embarrassed to reach out for help."
Walsh believes that embarrassment is a major problem, since there is a stigma attached to needing any kind of help from the town.
"We are trying to break that down, so I look at this pantry as more of a community place. And people are in and out, yet nobody knows who anybody is. I want clients to know that all kinds of people come in and out of here," Walsh said.
Walsh also wants the community to know that it's okay to talk to the food pantry, to be apart of this and to come here. She had been planning to do a summer healthy cooking initiative for kids along with other activities to engage the community.
"Those things are on pause right now, but once we get further through the pandemic, we'll be able to get started with that again," Walsh said.
Get Involved or Reach Out to The Cheshire Community Food Pantry
If you would like to donate to this amazing cause or become involved as a volunteer, visit the food pantry's website. Or, if you or someone you know is in need of food assistance, you can always reach out to the food pantry for help navigating the approval process. Walsh and her team of volunteers will always have your best interest at heart.
To contact the Cheshire Community Food Pantry, visit their website linked here to fill out a contact form or call (203) 699-9226 Ext. 103. The pantry is located at 175 Sandbank Road, Cheshire CT, 06410.