U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Jason Jakubowski, president and CEO of Connecticut Foodshare. Credit: Lisa Backus / CTNewsJunkie.com

Standing before the boxes of food ready to be given to hungry Connecticut families last week, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, announced a bipartisan effort to help feed needy families by extending liability protections and clarify food labeling to allow more donations from individuals, private industry and institutions of higher learning.

The proposed legislation couldn’t come at a better time, said Jason Jakubowski, president and CEO of Connecticut Foodshare.

His organization, which was the result of a merger between Foodshare and the Connecticut Food Bank, is feeding about 480,000 Connecticut residents who are food insecure. Prior to the pandemic, the number was about 390,000 state residents who needed help putting food on the table, Jakubowski said.

At the height of the pandemic about a year ago, the need had grown to 550,000 people, including children in families who were struggling to make ends meet.

The need has gone down a bit, Jakubowski said. But it hasn’t gone down to the level it was prior to the pandemic, he said.

“There is someone who is hungry in all 169 towns in Connecticut,” Jakubowski said. “When people think of hunger, they think about the large cities like Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven but we also distribute food to Simsbury, Glastonbury, Greenwich and even small towns like Union and Sprague.”

The proposed Food Donation Improvement Act introduced by Blumenthal and US. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-PA, would require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set guidelines to end the date that food can be used by in order to help bolster donations throughout the country.

The bill would also extend liability protections to individuals, businesses such as grocers and restaurants and colleges and universities when they donate food to individuals or provide food at a deeply reduced cost.

“This bill will eliminate legal roadblocks that discourage food donations by restaurants, retailers, and others,” Blumenthal said. “Nearly 40 percent of our nation’s food goes to waste – creating a clear opportunity and imperative to help Americans going hungry every day. I’m proud to partner with Senator Toomey on this bipartisan effort to enable timely and efficient food donations to Americans facing food insecurity.”

The national Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP is the first line of defense against hunger, Jakubowski said. But benefits aren’t massive and some families and individuals still rely on food banks to make ends meet, he said.

In the past year, Connecticut Foodshare distributed 40.5 million meals, Jakubowski said. Prior to the pandemic, the organization received about 75% of the food that was given to state residents. When the state was shut down in March 2020 due to the pandemic, food donations stopped coming in, he said.

To make up for the shortfall, the organization had to spend millions to pay for food as the need increased when people were laid off as businesses remained closed for extended periods of time, he said.

The good news is that monetary donations flowed in helping the organization to maintain their vital mission to feed state residents, he said.

“We have never raised as much money prior to the pandemic as we did during the pandemic, but we also have never spent as much money as we did with COVID-19,” Jakubowski said.

Right now as the holiday approaches, Connecticut Foodshare is receiving about 65% of their food through donations, he said. “We really want that number back to 75%,” Jakubowski said.

“We’re not there yet, but we’re in much better shape than we have been.”

While Connecticut has good protections for those who donate food, there are other states that have laws that restrict donations because people are fearful of the liability, he said. The legislation proposed by Blumenthal and Toomey would extend those protections to all 50 states which will help bring in more donations, he said.

The bill will also spur donations when the USDA sets guidelines for clarifying the “sell by” and “use by” dates on food, which is often an arbitrary date picked by the manufacturer, Jakobowski said.

He gave the example of Halloween or Christmas-themed cookies or cereal that are still good but often discarded by grocers when the holiday is over. “This will adjust the sell by date so it’s able to be used even longer,” Jakubowski said. “The ‘sell by’ dates aren’t necessarily the ‘use by’ date. Instead of destroying it, it would allow a lot of grocers to donate without a legal backlash.”

With 115 staff members and 8,000 volunteers, Connecticut Foodshare will be “100%” ready to help feed thousands of families during the holidays, Jakubowski said. But he pointed out, there’s a need all year long, including during the summer when kids are home from school.

“I’m an optimist, I think things are getting better,” he said. “But obviously we aren’t out of the woods yet.”

Anyone who is in need can find their local food bank at CTfoodshare.org or by calling 211. Those who would like to donate food or money can also visit Ctfoodshare.org.