Operation Community Impact

Resilience Through Partnerships

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.”

group of people wearing masks and holding signsGreenhouse 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

Supporting Families and Communities

Joyce Ann Hyde Foundation Sustains Food Donations

4-H is a family tradition for the Hyde’s of New London County. Brothers Harlan and Brandon Hyde were both active as youth, and now their children are members. They represent the slogan that 4-H grows true leaders—Brandon ’01 (CAHNR) has served on the alumni board for CAHNR and Harlan is an active 4-H volunteer.

“I have a fix-it personality, and we can’t fix COVID,” Harlan says. “Bonnie Burr, the assistant director for Extension called me in April about Operation Community Impact and the yogurt and sour cream delivery, and we started finding homes for it with the local food pantries. This project really changed my outlook on COVID. We were doing something for people and making a small contribution.”

Joyce Ann HydeThe Hyde’s started the Joyce Ann Hyde Food for Families Fund, a non-profit foundation, in honor of their late mother. The Foundation raises funds to support agriculture and community members in need.

“We’ve committed 100% of the funds from our non-profit to the purchase of food for the community,”

Brandon says. “There are three prongs to our non-profit. Our family has ties to agriculture and 4-H, and we want to be able to help feed families in need while directly supporting agriculture. It’s one of the goals in the mission of our non-profit. The third prong is using 4-H members to distribute the food, so they understand what it takes to give back.”

The Joyce Ann Hyde Foundation supported four milk deliveries and 10 produce deliveries to 27 food pantries in New London County to date. Over 30 families and 50 4-H youth members volunteer to move dairy and produce from central drop-off locations to the various food pantries. Brewster’s Orchards in Griswold donated apples and pears and the Foundation coordinated the logistics and distribution. Volunteers distributed the 7,500 pounds or produce throughout the fall of 2020. The Foundation purchased and distributed cheese in February. Sponsors donate refrigerated trucks and other logistics.

“We have an opportunity to impress on 4-Hers the givers heart,” Harlan says. “It’s also important to us that the whole thing started with farmers dumping milk, being limited to what they could ship to market—we want to increase demand. We buy fruit that might not be sold at market, and increase demand for those products, and we get the 4-H members involved in community service. We’re taking a holistic approach from farm to food pantry to table.”

“I’m really proud of the impact on the thousands of people we’re serving from all the food pantries,” Brandon says. “Just the three largest pantries in our network serve over 1,000 people.”

The Joyce Ann Hyde Foundation is growing the next generation of true leaders from the New London County 4-H program and positively impacting families and farm businesses throughout the county. The pandemic has upended the lives of thousands, and together we can help those in need and strengthen our communities.

Article by Stacey Stearns

Making the Best Better

4-H Members Civic Engagement Initiative Has Statewide Impact

girl pulling wagon of millkFood insecurity spiked across Connecticut because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The UConn 4-H team led and coordinated Operation Community Impact, a grassroots effort to help local families with food insecurity issues intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic. The effort also addresses surplus milk issues that negatively impact dairy farms in the state due to the pandemic.

The Litchfield County 4-H program selected Operation Community Impact focusing on food insecurity in the county as their theme for the year in January of 2020—the pandemic made that theme a necessity—and they focused their efforts on dairy products and organized the first milk distribution in March, and then the effort expanded statewide through our 4-H network in April.

The Extension Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) team and others are also instrumental to the success by facilitating connections with food pantries and volunteers. Businesses and partner organizations statewide have donated refrigeration, trucks, and space to facilitate donations.

4-H youth and volunteers facilitated donation and delivery of over 200,000 pounds of dairy products—and counting. They worked with 96 food pantries in 57 towns, serving over 10,710 families. Thousands of hours of volunteer time and services are integral to the success of Operation Community Impact—and many of those volunteers are alumnus of our 4-H program and the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources (CAHNR).

“Over my seven years in 4-H I have been given many cool community service opportunities, but the dairy outreach community project is by far the most influential,” says Madeline Hall, a Litchfield County 4-H member. “It is a huge operation that really helps the community. It is a beautiful sight to see how utterly grateful the pantries and families receiving the milk are. I never knew how many families in Connecticut were in need. I’m so proud to be part of UConn 4-H.”

Madeline, her sister Olivia, and their mom Margaret have volunteered at all 12 donations to date. The Hall family has donated over 1,000 hours of their time to the effort. Margaret Hall has been a 4-H volunteer leader for eight years and leads the Diggity Dogs 4-H Club. She is also a co-leader and helped start the Grow Getters 4-H Horticulture Club this past year.

All eight counties received donations and had 4-H youth participate in the initiative. Litchfield and New London counties continued serving their food pantries through community initiatives that raised funds to purchase milk—and fruit in New London county—to support the local food pantries.

“It reassures me that we have a bright future ahead of us because we have these motivated, hard-working, intelligent, outgoing individuals that come up through the 4-H program,”

says Bill Davenport, the Litchfield County 4-H Educator. “We are excited to get surplus dairy products—in storage because of the pandemic—into the hands of families who are food insecure. Our actions increase awareness of the issue and encourage others to help do the same across Connecticut and the region so that we can help move more milk and dairy products out of the surplus and into the refrigerators of people who desperately need it.”

Article by Stacey Stearns

4-H Members Share Project at National Agriscience Summit

UConn 4-H Litchfield County was one of seven 4-H groups in the country to be selected to create and submit a five to seven minute video to be made available to participants at the 2021 National 4-H Agriscience Summit held earlier this month. The video highlights the county’s Community Action Plan entitled Operation Community Impact, which helped address food insecurity in the county by securing donations of milk that were distributed to local food pantries and over 1,400 different food insecure families through 14 different deliveries over the past 10 months. Thank you to all our 4-H members, volunteers, Extension educators, and others for moving this to a statewide initiative.