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COVID-19 revealed weakness in supply chain for basic needs. What would candidates do about it?

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Editor’s note: This story responds to a reader question through the Record-Journal’s Voices initiative, an ongoing effort to cover the news that matters most to you. If you have a question you’d like us to report on visit www.myrecordjournal.com/voices.

WALLINGFORD — Imagine going to your refrigerator, opening the door, and finding nothing.

Or going to your cupboard and finding three cans of food to last your family a week, or not enough food for your child’s school lunch.

Imagine falling ill with a fever and not being able to get penicillin.

Gail Powell has helped clients of Master’s Manna facing these distressing situations gain access to food and basic life necessities, including primary medical care.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic made Powell, 73, consider the local impacts of disruptions to the global supply chain. She began to wonder what plans were in place to ensure access to basic life necessities in the event of a second wave of COVID-19, a natural disaster or an economic depression.

“It’s important for us as a society, as a whole, to have a plan for the least of us,” Powell said, “the people who are most vulnerable, who at this point in time are the elderly and the underprivileged.”

The pandemic created another group at risk of food insecurity: those in quarantine.

“I can go around and drive from store to store and find what I need,” she said, “but someone who is on a fixed income, or can’t leave home, or someone who is under quarantine, they don’t have that ability.”

Powell served as board chairwoman at Master’s Manna for three years and now handles administrative duties for the food pantry. She’s served on the board in some capacity for seven years and has been involved with Master’s Manna for 12 years.

She’s also a certified lay servant at the Yalesville United Methodist Church, acting as a liaison between the pastor and the congregation.

Powell visited the Connecticut Food Bank’s headquarters in Wallingford last month for a meeting of the organization’s new agency advisory board, which consists of representatives from community-based food pantries in southern Connecticut.

“What was apparent to us in the food pantry became even more apparent when I visited the food bank,” she said, “so that’s what prompted me to think about supply chain, as well as my own trips to the grocery store.”

She recalled that early on in the pandemic, “the shelves were bare, everywhere, and it wasn’t just toilet paper or paper towels or hand wipes.”

Her husband, Gary Powell, uses a CPAP machine which needs distilled water. She wasn’t able to find bottles of distilled water anywhere, she said.

“It was like everything in society ground to a halt,” she said. “Nothing moved, especially food. I saw milk being poured down sewer drains, I saw farmers plowing their crops into the ground, and it just sickened me. I thought, this is really not healthy for anyone in our country, to have farmers not being able to market their products, and having people who are hungry not being able to get food.”

Connecticut Food Bank spokesperson Paul Shipman said that the food bank has seen increased orders from organizations like Master’s Manna and increased traffic at mobile pantries.

He said that the amount of food sent out from the food bank in September was 26 percent higher than in September of last year.

Two-thirds of donations used to come from grocery stores, wholesalers and growers. Since the pandemic began, there has been a 60 percent drop in donations, which forced the food bank to buy food from the wholesale market, putting them into competition with the grocery stores.

Grocery stores have been making financial donations to help meet the dramatic increase in demand for food and essentials during the COVID-19 pandemic. Wakefern Food Corp., along with its cooperative members, donated more than $1 million dollars to regional food banks across the trading areas of Wakefern supermarkets ShopRite, Price Rite Marketplace and the Fresh Grocer.

Shipman said that federal financial aid in the form of the Emergency Food Assistance Program and the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, a new farm-to-pantry program, helps with food supply. There’s also been “tremendous support” from financial donors at all levels, from individuals, businesses and foundations.

“We are putting the food out there, millions of pounds,” he said.

Housing insecurity, another issue exacerbated by the COVID-19 economic crisis, has a direct connection to food access.

Some have lost their employment, forcing them to choose between paying rent and putting food on the table. If a person is homeless, lack of access to a kitchen affects how a person eats.

Margaret Middleton, CEO of Columbus House, said that since the pandemic began, the organization has helped more than 300 people in New Haven and Middlesex counties get into permanent housing.

“It really points to what is possible when there is a political will to keep people safe,” she said.

Candidates respond

The Record-Journal asked six candidates running for seats in the state legislature to answer Gail Powell’s original question:

“Local food pantries, food banks and social service agencies have struggled to help individuals and families who face hunger, food insecurity and lack of primary medical care obtain and receive these basic life necessities. What plans, programs and/or policies would you put in place to ensure a fail-safe supply chain for basic life necessities in the event of a second wave of COVID-19, another pandemic or natural disaster — fire, weather related (floods, hurricanes, others) — or an economic depression?”

34th Senate

Republican Paul Cicarella

“As a father to two young children and an employer, I understand how stressful the pandemic has been when it comes to providing for your family and the workers who count on you. I have seen the struggles of many friends and neighbors, and also the amazing work of nonprofits to help them. While Connecticut chiefly relies on hundreds of private, community-based agencies to provide most state-sponsored social services, funding for the safety net is shrinking because it is being crowded out by growing fixed costs. Clearly when developing state budgets and policy, nonprofits need to be made a priority. Our nonprofits have shown they can deliver higher quality social services with fewer deficiencies at a lower cost than state run services, but they need reliable, predictable support from the state. Finally, when it comes to the state’s role in the supply chain of items like PPE, Connecticut needs to implement purchasing policies that are competitive with other states so we are always at the front of the line to obtain life saving supplies.”

Democrat April Capone

“During my time as the mayor of East Haven, I led through a number of crises and challenges. In fact, it was the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic which inspired me to run for the state Senate, seeing a real need for crisis-tested leadership in a state Senate district which had been hard-hit by the effects of this global disaster. One in five businesses have closed, and almost a quarter-million Americans have died. We are seeing food shortages throughout the country, and in our own backyard. Food pantries simply cannot keep up with the demand, and it’s the job of the state and federal government to step in and keep Connecticut residents fed. In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene I worked successfully with FEMA and the Small Business Administration to launch a comprehensive recovery program for those affected by the devastation of Irene. Food shortage solutions must be achieved in the same manner: methodically, aggressively, and with the full weight of state and federal government programs behind them. The people of the 34th state Senate district deserve a leader with the executive experience and crisis-tested leadership to execute those solutions, and to ensure no one in our state goes hungry because of this pandemic.”

85th House

Democratic incumbent Mary Mushinsky

“The 16% unemployment we suddenly faced in the spring strained charities and social service agencies. Unemployment recently dropped to 8%, but COVID-19 could raise it again. Charity alone cannot handle people’s basic needs in a recession or disaster. Governments use stimulus funds and unemployment benefits to help people make it through a recession, which is normally cyclical and followed by an upswing. Governments borrow in bad times to help families and repay the debt in good times. A pandemic is different; the job losses in certain sectors — retail, restaurants, travel, hospitality — will persist until we develop a vaccine. This is a nationwide crisis and the Federal Reserve believes Congress should extend federal stimulus payments. Unemployed residents need either benefits or a new career. I’m trying to persuade some residents to try an apprenticeship. Connecticut acted to find medical supplies, offer health insurance, extend unemployment and relax rules for TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) recipients. Charities like food banks and pantries stepped up but they depend on donations which decline in a recession. This is the time for government assistance.”

Republican challenger
Weston Ulbrich

“A top priority of my campaign is to empower nonprofit organizations. I know firsthand that nonprofits operate more efficiently than state services with oftentimes shoestring budgets. I would seek private and public funding for independent food banks like Master’s Manna. We also need to think ahead and stockpile non-perishable items, medical supplies and emergency goods for the next disaster. This can be done and at a low cost if state government, local business and nonprofits work together in tandem. As state representative, I would support regional emergency preparedness programs. I would also promote volunteer opportunities for local residents at food banks and homeless shelters by going there to help myself. I have volunteered at both Master’s Manna and the CT Food Bank as a leader of the Ulbrich Community Outreach Team. I will always be up for performing hands-on work to get real things done for the food insecure people in our area. Thank you for this important question.”

90th House

Republican incumbent Craig Fishbein

“Our government cannot assure a ‘fail-safe supply chain’ for basic life necessities without totally abandoning our present system. The collective’s assurance that its survival is guaranteed through its government is that of countries with quite different governments than ours. Some believe people cannot succeed without government intervention. I choose to be an optimist, believing in personal responsibility and freedom so long as that freedom does not adversely affect the freedoms of others — that when left to their own devices, most people will strive to be the best they can be, and provide for others. Government should not be permitted to use its heavy hand of regulation to create winners and losers. For months now big box stores have been able to operate basically unfettered, while small businesses are restrained. The government says face masks work in restaurants that sell alcohol, but not in a bars that only sell alcohol. The purchase of flowers at a big box store is a safe transaction, but the same — most likely quicker — transaction at the local florist is harmful and banned?”

Democratic challenger Jim Jinks

“Most of us have followed the recommended health protocols and done our best to do our part. But unfortunately we’re not all on the same page. The sooner we beat the virus the sooner we can get back to ‘normal.’ Avoiding another shutdown, and deeper recession, should be priority one. My opponent has had other ideas, apparently. Suing the state to undo the mask mandate in schools and to end the extension of the governor’s emergency powers, despite how well our state has been doing in terms of new infections and hospitalizations. But I’d want to look at how we can expand state and federal health care programs, to fold in workers that have lost their jobs due to COVID. I’d also favor efforts to make our communities more resilient and responsive to economic, health and/or climate disruptions. Such as strengthening our local public health departments, developing more local and regional preparedness organizations, incentivizing and reducing the barriers for smaller scale farming and food producers, local energy production like food waste to bio-gas production and other renewables, and improving public transit.”

If you have a question about the state election you’d like us to report on, share it with us by filling out the form below or visit www.myrecordjournal.com/voices.

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