TORRINGTON — Friendly Hands Food Bank is busier than ever these days, with families struggling with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic seeking help — and food, officials said.
“Families are signing up every week,” said Executive Director Karen Thomas, who took the food bank’s lead role not long after the death of founder Maureen “Mo” Hubert earlier this year.
“Typically we’re seeing eight to 10 families coming here for the first time, looking for help. They don’t know when they’re going back to work, and they’re worried,” Thomas said.
According to Thomas, the food bank is providing food for 23,000 meals a month, and has close to 900 clients, mostly families, more than doubling the number of people they were feeding before the pandemic hit Connecticut in March.
When Hubert died, a new director was ready to take over, but she also died unexpectedly, and the food bank was about to close. But Thomas, a longtime volunteer, didn’t want that to happen. She, board president Danny Hartnett and other members and volunteers focused their energies on keeping the doors open and improving the food bank’s presence in the community. “When I saw the need, I wanted to keep Friendly Hands going,” Thomas said. “And it’s going strong.”
“Our business here has thrived, because we are recognized by so many people, and that brings more donations,” Hartnett said. “Branding is important ... We’re showcasing the positive things we’re doing, and what we can do for the entire community. That has made a big difference, and it’s also brought us more families to feed.”
Throughout the spring and summer, Friendly Hands families received boxes of fresh produce almost weekly through the Farmers to Families program, a USDA effort that is being conducted nationwide. Thomas brought it to Connecticut. Another round of Farmers to Families food box distributions is starting in October.
“I wanted to help the whole state, not just Torrington,” Thomas said. “We got on the distribution list in May, after we signed up for a USDA grant. So far we’ve had nine visits, and 37 other trucks have gone to other cities in Connecticut. We’ve given out close to a million pounds of fresh produce, and in October, they’re doing boxes with meat, dairy and produce, that will feed a family of four for close to two weeks.”
“State Rep. Michelle Cook (D-Torrington) came to every one of those, to hand out food,” Thomas said. “She’s been right with us through this whole thing. She never missed one.”
“I give Karen many accolades for getting this program set up in Connecticut,” Hartnett said. “She’s tireless ... She makes sure Connecticut gets as much food as it can from the Farmers to Families.
“Without it, there would have been just one truck for Torrington. Now they drive all over, delivering that food to people,” Hartnett said.
Hartnett hopes to start delivering Farmers to Families food boxes to shut-in residents, such as the elderly and disabled, who may not want to or, are unable to, come to the usual drive-through food distribution events. This summer they were held at Torrington High School, the library and Torrington Middle School.
“We encourage people to come, but sometimes they just can’t get there,” he said. “Hopefully we can change that.”
Thomas is proud of the success of the Farmers to Families effort, but she also is aware of the many people in Torrington who constantly provide their support to Friendly Hands every week, all year. For many local churches, non-profit groups and volunteer organizations, annual fundraisers that support their missions have been canceled.
“We’ve usually had two or three already, and we haven’t been able to raise money that way this year,” Thomas said. “So many things have been canceled. We depend on those, as well as our donations from businesses and private donors.”
Hartnett said one of organization’s biggest heroes — and there are many of them — is Michael Patterson and his wife Janet, who own Doyle’s Medical Supply.
“He’s come through for us, with anything we need,” Hartnett said. “He sets up locations for food drives, he provides us with boxes, his employees provide us with labor to do the work. He says, ‘Whatever you need, whenever you need it.’ And he means it.”
“He’s a true hero,’ Thomas said. “And he’s been that way for a lot of years. Without him, we wouldn’t have that support every day. It’s nice to have people like Mike, who’s a friend and an advocate. He believes in us and what we’re doing.”
Hartnett said the ongoing survival of Friendly Hands is because of a new approach. “We operate as a business now,” he said. “We’ve reached a level of sustainability, and it’s working, for now at least. If a business is sustainable, it can make such a difference.
“It also takes a whole community to make that happen,” Thomas said. “When we believe in the community, it believes in us. It’s taken all of us to help each other.”
Just before school began, the food bank held a backpack drive for local children, another annual tradition to help families in need. Everything was donated by supporters.
“We gave away about 250 packpacks, with masks for the children, a lanyard to keep them on, and school supplies,” Thomas said. “It was a fabulous success, helping all those kids.”
Friendly Hands, located on King Street, is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and can be reached by calling 860-482-3338, or visit https://friendlyhandsfoodbanknwct.org/