Paul Shipman photo

While Thanksgiving will look different this year, for the food pantry workers across Connecticut, it is just another day that they will work to make sure every hungry person is fed.

“I think it is important to remember that Thanksgiving is one day,” said Steve Werlin, executive director at Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen, Inc. in New Haven. “We are open 52 weeks a year doing a food pantry and doing dinner.”

Werlin said the meals that Downtown Evening provides on Thanksgiving are equally important as those they provide every day. However, given the emphasis that many families place on Thanksgiving, Werlin and other food pantry staff have come up with ways to modify what is usually a huge, crowded undertaking — serving Thanksgiving dinner to those in the New Haven area facing food insecurity.

In years past, Downtown Evening would have 50 to 100 volunteers working on site to prepare meals. This year, employees at Yale Dining will prepare 600 meals in Yale’s kitchens.

“We have sort of a big event on Thanksgiving morning,” Werlin said. “It is a lot of fun, and it is a big event and obviously we can’t have that sort of volunteer turnout.”

A couple dozen volunteers will deliver the meals. About 250 meals will go to homeless people in hotels, as well as those in the New Haven warming centers. Another 350 will be distributed to other people in need.

Paul Shipman photo

To the north in Middletown, MaryEllen Shuckerow, executive director at the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry and soup kitchen has two options for families this Thanksgiving. The volunteers will make packaged Thanksgiving meals that people can pick up at the facility, or those in need can sign up to receive a Thanksgiving basket, which will include a turkey as well as all the fixings they can prepare themselves.

The Thanksgiving baskets are stocked via a community partnership involving local police departments and Stop and Shop. Initially, Stop and Shop would not allow any donation drives due to COVID-19, but it made an exception for this one.

“People go shopping, they hand it to the policeman and it goes in the truck for us,” Shuckerow said. “We usually get 1,000 turkeys.”

Typically, donations keep St. Vincent de Paul and other food pantries afloat through the Thanksgiving and holiday season. But this year, since organizations like churches are not allowed to gather and hold food drives, Shuckerow has had to purchase most of the food needed to provide meals.

“I asked our churches to send funding to support what they would to provide a meal,” Shuckerow said. “Our food bank wasn’t getting the level of food we usually need plus more.”

As a result, Shuckerow had to open commercial accounts with food companies like Cisco that usually work with restaurants.

“I had to buy about $5,000 worth of food to keep up with the demand,” Shuckerow said.

This isn’t a problem unique to Middletown, according to Paul Shipman, senior director of marketing, communication and government relations at the Connecticut Food Bank.

“We saw this coming with the shift in how we would operate so we purchased turkeys in much higher quantities,” Shipman said. “In years past, we relied on donations. We spent a lot of time planning that.”

Paul Shipman photo

While Shipman said the Connecticut Food Bank purchased twice as many turkeys this year as any other year, they are still accepting donations.

“They are going out as quickly as we can get them out the door,” Shipman said.

Due to social distancing guidelines, getting enough volunteers to keep up with the demand for food this holiday season and throughout the year has been an ongoing challenge for some food pantries and soup kitchens.

“We never shut down,” Shuckerow said. “We can’t have staff work remotely. We have been here. We lost tons of volunteers because people were afraid to go in.”

Shuckerow has seen a 25% increase in the number of families needing food assistance as the pandemic went on and the variety of people needing help has expanded.

“We started a takeout delivery service for the Amazing Grace food pantry where we deliver boxed meals to any active Middlesex Hospital cancer patient throughout Middlesex County,” Shuckerow said. “Then we got a call from the housing authority. There are five senior living facilities in towns … we drop-ship food staples to their lobby so those folks don’t have to go to the grocery store.”

Working in a food pantry during a pandemic, and now leading up to the holidays has the potential to take a toll on the staff, according to Shipman.

“As a country, our mental health is suffering,” Shipman said. “I watch closely around that with the people I work with and provide support and guidance and give people a lift up. It is tough. We are considered a front-line agency. We haven’t missed a day since the pandemic started.”