Enhancing Food Security in Fairfield County
Food insecurity is not a new phenomenon, but the COVID-19 pandemic intensified the situation for many residents, including those in Fairfield County. Food banks and pantries across the state expanded their services to help the increasing numbers of food insecure families.
The pandemic introduced Heather Peracchio, an Assistant Extension Educator in our Fairfield County office with Lori Turco, the food pantry coordinator for Walnut Hill Community Church. They were introduced by Steve Harding and quickly formed a strong partnership to meet the communities’ needs. Heather works with the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) and with SNAP-Ed.
The number of families being served by the Walnut Hill Community Pantry increased because of the pandemic from 150 pre-pandemic to over 500 families. The food pantry was offered monthly before the pandemic and then shifted to weekly when the pandemic started. Staff serve three locations: the church in Bethel, Derby and New Milford. They serve over 1,500 families across the three locations from 22 towns. Some families come from as far as Stamford, Torrington, or Waterbury—there is a huge need for food resources.
The partnership between Extension and Walnut Hill Church started with Operation Community Impact— Heather wanted to help food pantries access the milk and dairy products donated by Guida’s and Cabot. Walnut Hill Church was happy to accept the donations and let Extension use their FEMA supplied 40-foot refrigerated trailer for deliveries. The Fairfield County Extension team connected food pantries throughout the area with dairy donations. Team members Edith Valiquette, Donna Liska, Linda Connelly, and the 4-H volunteers that delivered dairy were crucial to the project.
From that initial collaboration, the partnership has grown, and expanded the services offered to the community. “I connected Lori and the Walnut Hill Community Pantry to the Danbury Food Collaborative,” Heather says. “She has used that connection to establish a network of food distributions and Walnut Hill Church has become the main delivery site for all Danbury area USDA Farmers’ to Families Food Boxes. Lori also started a non-profit Community Food Rescue and is planning a Food Hub in Danbury.”
“The partnership with UConn Extension is phenomenal,” Lori says. “The only time we get dairy is in the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box or from Extension. The Extension team organized the dairy donations and facilitated funds. We were able to consistently provide milk for almost 500 families. We could buy more food with the money we have and be able to give fresh milk to everyone.”
Greenhouse Wealth Management, LLC in Westport generously donated $1500 to the effort (photo below). Ryan Callas owns the company and is a UConn alumni. He heard about the initiative through an employee whose cousin lives next door to Heather—and Ryan was happy to get involved because of the UConn ties. The initial donation from Green Wealth Management prompted other donations that further supported Operation Community Impact in Fairfield County.
Extension’s contributions extend beyond facilitating and coordinating the dairy donations for food pantries. Our educators provide resources and connections for many areas of need. For example, Heather makes videos in English and Spanish for each USDA Food Box to help recipients use the items they are receiving.
Heather creates videos where she uses the ingredients in the food boxes in recipes. She then creates a QR code that links to the video to help recipients use the products. “Her videos have friendly, helpful hints and they are bilingual,” Lori says. “It helps make the food stretch further for our families. We put the QR code on our program materials each week for our families. The videos are an amazing tool that she’s created for us.”
Baby food was secured for families, and Heather also connects them to other resources, answers questions on everything from nutrition to expiration dates, and serves as an overall resource for the community.
“UConn Extension has helped us on multiple levels way beyond the dairy donations during Operation Community Impact,”
Lori says. “They gave us laundry cards last week for our families to get laundry done. Heather connected us with birthday bags for our residents too, these have everything a family needs to create a birthday for a family member. I can’t say enough about UConn Extension connecting us with the people we need. We’re extremely thankful for everything we’ve received.”
“Our work with Lori captures the essence of what Extension is,” Heather says. “UConn Extension helped the community, and we also fostered connections related to food security that are sustainable and will have long-term effects on the people living here.”
Article by Stacey Stearns