OPINION: How the Farmers to Families program helped us help our neighbors

OPINION: How the Farmers to Families program helped us help our neighbors

By Stephen Knight

I think we are all suffering from Covid-19 Bad News Overload, but the effects of the disease and its terrible impact on so many individuals and families are still with us, so what to do? Well, this week I want to tell you about a program that the United Way of Meriden and Wallingford has had lately called the Farmers to Families program. It has provided some nourishing, fresh food to hundreds of Meriden and Wallingford families and individuals in need of help due to the pandemic. I thought that we could all use a good news story that will give you an example of how communities band together to help their neighbors.

This is a program initiated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture back last spring, and it involves shipping truckloads of boxes of fresh food and produce to organizations throughout the nation on a regular basis. Our United Way agency learned of the program’s existence only in November of last year from Cyrena Thibodeau of the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, who was looking for additional locations, as they had extra truckloads to share.

Each box of food would contain 12 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables, 5 pounds of fresh dairy items such as yogurt and sour cream, 1 gallon of fresh milk, and 5 pounds of fully cooked proteins in the form of chicken, hot dogs and other such staples.

After being offered two loads to be delivered in December, the UWMW accepted the challenge to organize these events and immediately began planning the logistics. Gail Powell from Master’s Manna was contacted.  Within a few days, she had secured permission from Master’s Manna’s neighbor, Good News Christian Church, to use their parking lots that could accommodate the parade of cars expected and space to unload the truck and distribute the boxes of food. She got the Wallingford Electric Division, located right across the street from the church, to volunteer a fork lift and operator to help unload the truck when it arrived.

Master’s Manna, New Opportunities’ Meriden agency, SCOW, Good News Christian Church, and United Way staff and friends provided the dozen or so volunteers required to staff the six-hour distributions. The Wallingford Police Department’s Traffic Division set up dozens of cones to help people navigate the church lots.

Next came the need to publicize the when and where of the events. The UWMW used social media, contacted many local social service agencies in Meriden and Wallingford, and used their own contact lists to get the word out. The UWMW board, Wallingford Youth and Social Services Department, the Meriden and Wallingford Public School systems and this newspaper also spread the word.

The first load arrived on December 8th at 8:30a.m. from a distributor in Long Island. Ulbrich Steel supplied the forklift and operator that first day, and the 24 pallets – each containing 42 boxes of food weighing 30 pounds – were off-loaded onto the church parking lot. For the next four hours, volunteers put boxes of food into cars, as well as vans from several agencies. By 2:30 p.m., all 1,008 boxes were given away. One week later, with the Electric and Water Divisions providing the forklift and operator, another 1,008 boxes were off-loaded and 30,240 more pounds were distributed to families and individuals.

Two more truckloads were offered to the UWMW by the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, and the dates of February 3rd and 17th were selected. These loads came from Boston, and they were larger. Each of the 21 pallets contained 63 boxes, so there were 1,323 boxes on each truckload weighing almost 40,000 pounds.

Planning, staffing, and executing this operation were not as easy as I am making it sound. The United Way is not in the food distribution business. Fortunately, one of their volunteers had logistics experience, so he could deal with many of those details. But for the most part, success came about because anyone and everyone who was asked came through to help. Moving all this material in a few short hours is something everyone involved can be proud of, and their only reward was the only one they wanted: to see hundreds of people who are indeed suffering from food insecurity be given at least some respite from the worries they face each day, wondering how they will feed themselves and their families.

The UWMW hopes to secure a couple of loads for distribution in the month of March. The program is being extended on a month-by-month basis, so if you know of an individual or family needing help with food, have them go to the UWMW website (unitedwaymw.org) for details. The damage from the pandemic will continue for months after the vaccine has protected most of us. It is community efforts such as this one which will still be required. Thank you, United Way.

Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford town councilor.




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