A line of people bundled in thick coats, scarves and gloves formed along the outer edges of a small parking lot earlier this month at Elm Ridge Park in Rocky Hill.
Despite the cold and drizzly weather, residents waited with empty grocery bags, shopping carts, baskets and boxes as volunteers from Foodshare, the Greater Hartford region’s food bank, set up tables with fresh vegetables, fruits, meat and poultry.
Tina Dalfonso was among the crowd, at the front of the line. She came to the park to get some donated food from the bank’s mobile pantry services, which she said helps feed her family during tough times.
“We need it, because people are hungry,” she said, adding a bag of potatoes to her cart. “And that’s the sad thing, that people are hungry in this country, you know what I mean? Or in any country, really.”
More than 406,000 Connecticut residents are food insecure -- a term that means lacking access to affordable, healthy food, according to Feeding America, an organization that tracks hunger in the United States. And nearly half of those residents do not qualify for programs like the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
Foodshare’s mobile pantry program started as a way to get healthy produce to a handful of sites that had limited capacity for fresh food. It has expanded over the years, and trucks now bring donated food every month to 64 sites in Hartford and Tolland counties.
The pantries set up outside at each location for about an hour. It’s an option for residents who may not be able to travel to the closest brick-and-mortar pantry.
Residents like Dalfonso said the mobile services have helped her with food while she struggled with her health. She was treated for lung cancer, and she’s now in recovery.
“We would have nothing without that, you know?” Dalfonso said as she placed bags of food in her car trunk before heading home.
Food insecurity has been linked to an increased risk of health problems like diabetes, hypertension, cognitive problems, sleep issues and poor oral health.
Recognizing the extent of the problem, Foodshare’s Sarah Santora said the mobile pantry services are open to anyone. Customers do not have to qualify for state or federal food assistance programs and they don’t have to reveal their citizenship status or their income levels in order to get food at a mobile site.
“It’s very surprising to many people that the numbers of people that are at the pantry, at the shelter and at the mobile truck … there’s no part of Connecticut that there aren’t people who are struggling,” Santora said.
Standing near the truck, pantry volunteer Carla Grasso gave out heads of lettuce to customers in line -- a line that she herself used to stand in.
“I had two children, I was [a] single mom, and it was hard, so you have to do what you have to do,” Grasso said. “And then, you know, to be on this side now ... I love doing it. Anything to help.”
The supply that people get at the mobile pantries isn’t meant to be a primary source of food -- it’s a supplement to the produce residents can buy at grocery stores, where some of the healthiest products like fruits and vegetables can be expensive.
Jason Jakubowski, Foodshare CEO, said that makes it hard for residents who have to decide between paying for good quality food and electricity, heat, transportation, health insurance and other necessities.
“In all of those different choices, food usually ends up being the one thing that gets cut out,” he said, “and if we’re there to be able to help bridge that gap, that’s what our main purpose is in the community.”
The mobile pantries visit each site twice a month. Locations and schedules are available at Foodshare.org.