What food insecurity means to the residents of the Greater New Haven area, students at QU

By Charlene Torres

Most weeks, Christina Freeman isn’t able to bring fresh groceries home for her two boys.

“Some nights I give them the last bit of milk and cereal for dinner, while I have a cup of coffee. It honestly breaks my heart,” said Freeman.

Freeman is a New Haven resident and single mom of two pre-teens. She has worked part time for the past few years at a local grocery store, where she occasionally buys her food from when she can afford it. Freeman has struggled financially and physically to support her family because of her everyday battle with lupus, a chronic inflammatory disease that is caused by autoimmunity.

Freeman fights more than food insecurity every day. Her health has hindered her ability to provide for her children and sometimes she has to choose between keeping a roof over her family’s head and buying decent meals for her children.

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“My family isn't the only family suffering from this. I see children running around my neighborhood all the time begging for food. This isn’t a new issue for New Haven, nor the people of Connecticut, and there needs to be more things done,” said Freeman.

The Freeman family is just one of the many families that has been struggling with food insecurity in Connecticut. According to End Hunger Connecticut, 13.9 percent of Connecticut residents are food insecure and 6 percent are very food insecure — a slight increase from 11.9 percent and 4.7 percent, respectively, in 2009-2011.”

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High poverty levels are the driving force behind food insecurity in New Haven.

Food insecurity is a household’s inability to provide enough food for every person in their family to live an active, healthy life. Just one “off month” can be enough to put a household into food insecurity. Layoffs at work, unexpected car accidents or an accident on the job can abruptly force a family to choose between buying food and paying bills.

For Freeman, it was losing the financial and emotional support from her husband.  

“I wish my boys had their dad in their lives. He was convicted for a crime when he was only trying to support his family. Seeing your kids not have basic things in life makes you do things that you later regret,” said Freeman.

When her husband died, times only got harder. Without the help of her husband, Freeman’s budget doesn’t allow her to buy the proper amount of groceries for the week. This sometimes forces her to seek outside help like soup kitchens.

The Hunger in America 2014 study by Feeding America surveyed food pantry and soup kitchen clients in Connecticut and revealed that in the previous 12 months:

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  • 73 percent had to choose between food or utilities

  • 63 percent had to choose between food or rent

  • 68 percent had to choose between food or medical care

Around 12.2 percent or 437,530 Connecticut residents are food insecure, and it would take about $245 million to meet the needs of Connecticut’s food insecure population, according to CT Food Bank. Despite the high cost, nonprofits and local politicians are developing many initiatives to combat this issue, which include more local food pantries, local gardens and backpack programs to provide healthy food options for children.

These initiatives have been prominent all over the state of Connecticut, and one, in particular, is the Connecticut Food Justice Vista Project located in Hartford. This program focuses on providing access to healthy affordable food to many families.

They host many events throughout the year where hold small canned food drives and engage the community and community leaders in building food gardens in different parts of Hartford. These programs help combat the high poverty levels.

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“I struggled with food insecurity myself,” said Jocelyn Perez, a leader at the CT Food Justice Vista Project.

“My mom worked double shifts just to be able to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. She didn’t want us to have all junk food that most families could only afford,” Perez said.

Perez helps organize events, providing food to the community and implementing long lasting efforts to end hunger. She now works directly with CT Food Bank who help fund some of their initiatives within the VISTA Project.

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The Quinnipiac community and residents in the Greater New Haven area aim to start programs like this to end families adapting to skipping meals more often than not.  

Daquan Stuckey, a Quinnipiac alum and the Community Engagement VISTA-Food Insecurity for United Way of Greater New Haven, is working with organizations like the CT Food Bank to provide more local food trucks and food pantries with fresh food for their communities.

Stuckey has been part of this project fighting food insecurity for the past few months and says he understands that there needs to be more awareness of this issue to bring more support. He wants students to become more active within the movement.

“It’s important to know the area you live in. We are not just living at Quinnipiac University for four years or more, we are imprinting our feet in Hamden, in Connecticut and it is important to engage and make an impact on this community which is suffering from hunger as well,” Stuckey said.

Stuckey is part of the Hamden Food Security Task Force with other Hamden officials that have been coming together about every six weeks for the past few months to discuss ongoing plans to combat food insecurity in Hamden.

Stuckey said Quinnipiac University has a long history of participating in community service and that students should not be hesitant to partake in this movement. “This issue is more than a battle about food insecurity, this is a battle of inequality, and it’s going to take commitment to end it,” said Stuckey.

According to CT Food Bank, 14 percent of Hamden residents are food insecure, while 23 percent of New Haven residents are as well. As a whole, the Greater New Haven area has an increasing rate of people having limited to no access to healthy foods.

“As a University, we need to understand that we can’t always send our students to developing countries to help people in poverty, when we have the same dynamics of people in our own community struggling who we can support,” stated Sean Duffy, the executive director of the Albert Schweitzer Institute and a political science professor at Quinnipiac.

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Poverty levels continue to increase in Hamden, and it’s pushing more people toward food insecurity.

Like Stuckey, Duffy has joined the Hamden Task Force in efforts to end food insecurity in Hamden. Duffy feels that  Quinnipiac needs to be careful about how to support this initiative.

“The best way would be to get involved in small ways without making it seem like we’re better than the people in these communities,” said Duffy.

He wants to use the connection the Albert Schweitzer Institute has with the task force to create more collaboration between Quinnipiac and Hamden. This would be a place where students can understand food systems and food insecurity so when students are ready to go out into the community, they can do it from an informed position.

It can happen to anyone
— Sean Duffy

“It takes time, money and commitment to end hunger in these communities, but I believe we can do it. What the Hamden Food Security Task Force is doing is a great start. It shows that hunger doesn’t have a certain racial background or geographic location. It can happen to anyone,” said Duffy.

One of the main initiatives on its way to Hamden under the Task Force is a school farmer’s market pilot program at Helen Street School. The program funds healthy food options for students once a week and places them in students bookbags.

Frederick Goodman, who is one of the coordinators for the program and works at CT Food Bank said, “There is currently a scheduling issue with when this will start, but we hope that communication about this project will increase, especially with residents in Hamden and the Hamden Task Force.”

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Freeman has seen the CT Food Bank make substantial efforts to provide food to individuals who don’t have the means for it and hopes this program can build on that success.

Parents, organizations, and even students are encouraged to be on the lookout for programs like this to help support them.

“We like to think that children are only suffering in inner city areas, but hunger is happening everywhere, especially in places you think it isn't,” Freeman said.