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Thursday, 25 July 2013 15:00

Food Pantry Tries to Fill Summer Lunchtime Void

By Chelsea DiSchiano | News

WILTON — For most families in Wilton, summer is a cool fruity drink with a little umbrella floating at the top of the glass. Summer is sunblock on the beach, lemonade stands, play dates, movies at the drive-in—it is a break from the usual worries and stresses that school, work and extracurriculars can bring.

But for families with children who rely on lunch programs to eat during the school year, summer is a wrinkled brow, a sigh of frustration, a head buried in the hands of parents who must find a way to provide another meal for their children. Parents who have no more time and no more money to fill the lunchtime void that summer brings must find some solution to feed their kids.

Luckily, resources like Wilton Food Pantry exist to serve families in situations exactly like this. But for the food pantry, summer means serving more recipients and their children, less volunteer hours and less monetary donations. 

Debi Zellan, president of the Wilton Food Pantry board, said the pantry has seen an uptick in adults and children coming in to receive meals this summer.

“Little kids are coming in with their parents now,” Zellan said. “We are working hard to make sure we have easy lunch items available because we’re very aware of the fact that lunch programs are not available to a lot of kids, especially in Wilton—we don’t have a central location where kids can go.”

In May, the pantry served 1,557 meals. In June, that number jumped 30 percent to 2,034 meals served. 

“A lot of things drop off during the summer,” Zellan said. “People are so very busy—everybody is running around on vacation, and they’re already advertising back to school if you can believe that, and everybody is just running and running so a lot of things drop off for us. Our volunteer hours can be a challenge for us sometimes because they have so much to do in the summer.”

Though volunteers can be sporadic in the summer, Zellan did say she just registered two new volunteers and that anyone can sign up to volunteer as it fits into their schedule.

“We have shifts available almost every day of the week in the morning to collect and sort food, and our distribution hours are every Wednesday and Saturday,” Zellan said. “Saturday is our biggest challenge—the kids are out of school, the parents have to take care of the kids, everybody is going in a different direction and it’s hard to make a commitment, but we’re doing alright.”

Zellan said a big help has been new board member Ben Niese, a chef who makes recipes out of the ingredients provided to the pantry. 

“It depends on what we have in the pantry—he’ll provide a recipe that will suit it. For example, we had a large donation of tofu from Healthy Living Market and we had a hard time convincing people to try it, so he made up a recipe and then people did,” Zellan said. “He’s also done things like bruschetta—we try to convince people to use bread for more than just bread and butter. We want people to be making nutritious meals with what we can provide for them, especially at this time of year when fresh produce is available. We want them to take a lot and use it well.”

Though monetary donations are usually lower during the summers, Zellan said she does see a steady flow of item donations. 

“We try to get stuff to make sandwiches, stuff for snacks, crackers, fruit, and we like to have healthy fresh produce available throughout the year, though it’s easier to get in the summertime, so we have a lot of that,” Zellan. 

The food pantry also benefits from partnerships with Healthy Living, Hannaford and BJ’s, as well as from purchasing food for a cheaper price through the Regional Food Bank. 

“Healthy Living is a wonderful community resource—we receive donations from them twice a week and in August we will be fortunate to benefit from their register drive where they’ll be featuring us as a charity they will donate to,” Zellan said. “We also get donations from Hannaford and BJ’s and purchase some of our food from the regional food bank as well, which is a phenomenal resource.”

“When people donate money to us, they don’t understand that we buy food at 16 cents a pound from the food bank, so that money is enormously important to us,” Zellan said. 

Zellan said the food pantry is always grateful to be donated items such as sealed deli meats (the pantry can’t redistribute regular meat bought from the deli because the meats must be sealed), fruit juices, snacks, produce and other luncheon items. 

“Everybody donates cans of soups, and that’s wonderful—cans of soup are a phenomenal meal choice for both kids and adults, but we have a lot of that and people often don’t think of the other items we like to get—like jelly! People always donate peanut butter, but they never donate jelly,” she said with a laugh. 

Though the pantry does face more challenges in the summertime, Zellan said she and her volunteers choose to focus on the successes of their work. 

“We like to focus on our successes and the fact that so many people are able to eat healthier because we are able to channel the generosity of our community,” she said. “We think about the moments that make it all worthwhile—a little girl who grabs a pack of apples and literally does a jig and hugs it to her body because she’s so excited to have an apple, or a little boy who sees a cupcake and his eyes get so big when we say ‘you can have that,’—those are the stories that keep us going.”

To donate to Wilton Food Pantry, volunteer or for more information, call (518) 538-9978 or visit www.wiltonfoodpantry.org. 

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