FISH of Greater New Haven, a non-profit organization that delivers groceries to needy individuals, sends out as many as 650 bags of food every month. But whenever executive director Marsha Royster clears the organization’s voicemail, which holds up to 42 messages, it fills up within 30 minutes with requests for aid.
“The demand is so high we take the calls as they come in,” Royster said. “Everybody’s situation is desperate at this point.”
Royster’s observations reflect a nationwide trend. A report published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Sept. 5 found that 13.4 percent of Connecticut residents are “food insecure,” meaning they lacked the resources to provide adequate food for each member of their family at some point over the past year. Connecticut improves upon the national average of 14.7 percent, but the state’s food insecure population has been rising rapidly — it increased by 5.8 percentage points from 2002 to 2012, compared with a national increase of 3.9 percentage points.
Lucy Nolan, executive director of advocacy and outreach group End Hunger Connecticut!, attributed the increase primarily to the lingering effects of the Great Recession. The recession hit the state’s suburban areas particularly hard, where those who cannot feed their families are reluctant to seek help.
“We’re finding a lot more hunger in suburbs,” she said. “It’s sort of the hidden hunger because people don’t want their neighbors to know they’re having issues.”
Geography can play a major role in determining whether people with limited resources are able to maintain food security. Nolan said cities tend to have more easily accessible offices that manage the State Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — formerly known as food stamps — well-run school nutrition and summer feeding programs for kids, and stronger non-profit networks.
Poncho Jackson, the dining supervisor at the Community Soup Kitchen on Broadway, said clients from across the state make treks to New Haven for food.
“They come from Waterbury, East Haven, Torrington — everywhere,” Jackson said. “We have programs down here that they don’t have.”
But even in New Haven, resources to help the hungry cannot stretch far enough. A fall 2012 survey of the Elm City’s six lowest-income neighborhoods — published by the Community Alliance for Research and Engagement at the Yale School of Public Health — found that four of 10 residents said they had been unable to buy adequate food for their families at some point over the past month. In 2009, the same survey found just one in five residents was food insecure.
As non-profit organizations work to keep up with demand, New Haven’s city government has sought to coordinate the activities of non-profits and governmental agencies, such as the state Department of Social Services. The city established the New Haven Food Policy Council in 2007 to address food issues in the city.
Within the council, William Bromage chairs the Food Access Working Group, which focuses on improving food security in the city. Bromage’s group has three specific goals: expanding enrollment in SNAP and WIC — food assistance for women, infants and children — increasing donations to non-profit emergency food providers and improving access to food for senior citizens. The working group has been training local residents to conduct outreach work, Bromage said, instructing 12 people in “priority categories,” such as girls and low-income seniors, in advocacy work via paid internships.
Bromage said some eligible people do not enroll in SNAP because they are not aware of how to apply for benefits. He hopes that the internship program will enhance access to information and also create a group of advocates who are able to participate in crafting policies that directly affect them.
“We’re trying to get a cohort of people that are willing to advocate for other people in their situation by telling their stories,” Bromage said. “We feel like that voice is not [currently] accessible.”
In July 2013, 220,644 Connecticut households were enrolled in SNAP, up from 203,744 the previous year.