BETHEL, CT — Crises bring folks together, particularly when one of those folks runs Social Services for the town.
"We are seeing a lot more people that I have never met before," said Megan Alworth-Khazadian, Bethel's director of social services. She organizes the regular distributions of food to food-insecure residents.
Alworth-Khazadian says there are also many more single- and two-person households that are utilizing the food programs — the typical clients have been households of four or more, she said.
The reason for the sudden shakeup is no secret. Feeding America, the nation's largest hunger relief organization, says coronavirus-related economic crises could push the number of food insecure Americans to 54 million by year's end. That's 17 million more Americans than who were food insecure before the pandemic. In Fairfield County, there's a budget shortfall of over $64 million between the minimum needed to put food on the table, and how much money the population has in its pocket. That's even with the average meal in the county costing just $4.06.
The social services calendar in Bethel runs from July 1 through the end of June. For 2019-20, the Department had qualified 195 people for the food distributions. The current registration is up to 262, of whom 97 are children, and 49 are elderly.
Susan Pople, who runs the Bethel Pantry, says her clientele has changed, but the overall demand has pretty much stayed the same. "We had a lot of our people in the vulnerable population who had not been coming to the pantry regularly, but we've had others — especially young families from Danbury — during this time, who have lost jobs... so our numbers have been fairly consistent in the overall picture, 80-100 families per month."
In another community, these demands might stretch the social safety net to the breaking point or beyond, but not in Bethel.
"People in Bethel are amazing," Alworth-Khazadian said. The summer distribution was filled completely from food donated at just one of the town's recent food drives. In fact, the response from residents has been so great, and the need so dire, that the town is adding another food distribution in September, in advance of the two big end-of-year deliveries. (Volunteers are needed to help make those Sept. 26 deliveries. Interested parties should contact the Social Services Office at 203-794-8537.)
It's not just Bethel who are opening their wallets and larders. According to Alworth-Khazadian, Bethel's food services are getting plenty of donations from residents in surrounding towns, as well.
Although people have been generous, Pople said the pantry is perpetually short of certain high-demand items: "We have ongoing needs that we can not fulfill unless we purchase, and that's coffee and cereal and fruit juice. These are three main things — along with jam and jellies —that we don't get a lot of donations of."
Even though the outlook has brightened with talk of a vaccine on the horizon, Alworth-Khazadian is confident the new food insecurity in Bethel is not going away anytime soon.
"The reality is, if you're out of a job, and you don't have income, then you need that extra time even after you get a job," Alworth-Khazadian said. "There are going to be back bills. So even after the effects of COVID end and people are back at work I see them needing extra support for maybe six months."
Patch has partnered with Feeding America to help raise awareness on behalf of the millions of Americans facing hunger. Feeding America, which supports 200 food banks across the country, estimates that in 2020, more than 54 million Americans will not have enough nutritious food to eat due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. This is a Patch social good project; Feeding America receives 100 percent of donations. Find out how you can donate in your community or find a food pantry near you.