After weeks of planning and assembling, a small army of volunteers — including some who are literally in the army — needed only 60 minutes to place a tractor trailer’s worth of food in the trunks of 357 cars at Hamden Middle School.
Normally, the food distribution that took place Wednesday afternoon would feed 150 families. The Connecticut Food Bank would use its staff and volunteers to hand it out at the Christ Bread of Life Church in Hamden.
This time, it was not the food bank’s volunteers, but an impromptu army of volunteers and National Guardsmen assembled by town staff who got food to 390 families, including a few bags set aside for delivery and for the church.
According to Hamden Police Sergeant William Onofrio, even more families in need of food came too late.
Once 357 cars had rolled through a gauntlet of tables laden with bags of food and driven off with all of it, Onofrio said police had to turn away about 400 families. He said the line of cars stretched along Dixwell Avenue all the way to North Haven in one direction — nearly a mile — and to Skiff Street in the other — a little under half a mile.
Wednesday’s distribution was what is usually the Connecticut Food Bank’s mobile food pantry. A truck would come to Christ Bread of Life Church, and families would come choose what they take home. But due to Covid-19, the Connecticut Food Bank has been unable to provide its volunteers to distribute the food. Instead, it simply drops the food off, and someone else must do the distribution.
Unable to find volunteers and engineer a new minimal-contact handout system, other towns have had to cancel their mobile food pantries. But not Hamden.
A few weeks ago, Hector Velazquez (pictured above, with thumbs up) found out that the food bank would be unable to provide its volunteers for a similar mobile food pantry, which took place at the Dunbar Hill School on March 23. Velazquez, who is the family engagement coordinator at Hamden’s Church Street School, organizes the Dunbar Hill mobile food pantry. Afraid he might have to cancel the food pantry, he called Community Development Manager Adam Sendroff.
Sendroff was determined to make the pantry happen. “With historic jobless rates, it’s more important than ever that we provide families with food,” he said. The day he got Velazquez’s call, Fire Chief Gary Merwede had emailed saying that the Hamden Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) was available to volunteer for community initiatives if the need ever arose.
With the help of the mayor, the school district, and Christ Bread of Life Church, Velazquez and Sendroff pulled together a team that distributed food to 200 families in the pouring rain and snow at Dunbar Hill.
After the March 23 pantry, it was clear the next one would need more space and more volunteers. So, the team moved its operation to the middle school, which has a long driveway that loops all the way around the school so cars would not have to wait in the road (which, as it turned out, was still too short). This time, they also enlisted the National Guard.
At 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sendroff, Velazquez, 22 members of CERT, three members of the National Guard, six police officers, and a handful of other volunteers packed the last bags with perishables like vegetables and yogurt. They had spent the previous day in the middle school cafeteria assembling all of the non-perishables.
The pantry was supposed to start at 4:30 p.m., but cars were already lined up on Dixwell Avenue an hour early, so they let the first ones into the driveway at 3:45 to get them out of the road. At 4, the operation began.
It was like watching a real army, trained to pack supplies into large convoys of vehicles as efficiently as possible. Drivers drove down the driveway to the back of the school in two rows. About ten yards from the tables and tents, they stopped. Bob Freeman, who runs CERT, opened the trunks of their cars.
Once the volunteers at the tables were ready, cars rolled up in groups of six and stopped when their open trunks came even with one of the tables. One of the volunteers at each table had prepared the plastic bags. The other hoisted them into the trunk.
“Give me a thumbs up!” called Velazquez, asking the volunteers to signal when they were done loading. “Close their trunks!”
Once the cars were laden with the food bank’s wares, they rolled forward and up the hill on the other side of the school back to Dixwell Avenue.
Many of the people who showed up to have food loaded into their trunks said it was their first time coming to a food bank. Most of them said they had just lost a job.
Johny Robinson (pictured above), who lives in Hamden, said he had just been laid off from his job at a moving company. He’s now on unemployment. “Ninety percent of the time I’m in the house,” he said of his new unemployed, pandemic life.
Robin Orzo (pictured above) drove up from New Haven. She said she worked remotely in sales for a women’s clothing company based in New York until it had to lay her off. On Wednesday, she got food from a food pantry for the first time.
“Times are hard right now,” she said. “Everyone’s struggling. It kind of makes you feel less bad when you see everyone’s in the same boat.” She looked out over the river of cars before and behind her. “It makes me feel sad,” she said, “for myself, for everyone, for the state of the world. But I’m grateful programs like this exist.”
Stephanie Pereira said she lost two jobs — one as a certified nursing assistant, and another at a pharmacy. She and another laid-off family member have to support a family of eight. So, she drove from Stratford to get food.
About halfway through the hour-long distribution, a familiar face, half-obscured by a blue surgical mask, walked down the pathway next to the cars to the distribution area.
Normally an entourage of aides might accompany U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, but on Wednesday, he walked alone on his way to thank the volunteers.
Once he arrived at the tents, he greeted the neon-clad food distributors and thanked them for their work, forgoing the customary handshakes as he stayed six feet from them.
The distance didn’t stop Velazquez from snapping a selfie.
Blumenthal wandered over to the cars and spoke to a few drivers before disappearing back up the path.
A few minutes before 5 p.m., the tail end of the line of cars came into view, cut off at the entrance to the school because food was about to run out. By 5, the last of the bags had been loaded into trunks, and volunteers started crumpling up the cardboard boxes they had used to store food and packed them into a large rolling recycling bin. They folded up the tables and removed the traffic cones from the road.
After a few minutes, once police had left the school’s entrance unblocked, cars starting pouring in again. They snaked down the driveway to where a truckload of food had just disappeared in an hour. Onofrio walked up to each window to tell the drivers they had come too late. He handed them a sheet of paper that listed all of the food initiatives in Hamden so they could learn where else to look for groceries.
After weeks of planning, days of packing, and one hour of loading, it was over. Until next time.
“Hey guys! April 27!” Velazquez called once everything had been packed up. In 19 days, they’ll do it all over again, hopefully with more food. That depends on how much the food bank can manage to provide.