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Fern Street Food Ministry Greatly Impacting Hunger in West Hartford and Beyond

Vinh Vuong from Connecticut Foodshare speaks with volunteers at the Fern Street Food Ministry Volunteer Appreciation breakfast. Photo credit: Mick Melvin

The Fern Street Food Ministry held a volunteer appreciation event earlier this month, and hopes to continue to attract more volunteers and donations to assist in its efforts to alleviate hunger.

Fern Street Food Ministry Volunteer Appreciation breakfast. Photo credit: Mick Melvin

By Ronni Newton

Those who volunteer for the Fern Street Food Ministry certainly aren’t doing it for the glory, but their efforts are very much appreciated and a breakfast event was held June 4 to recognize the important contributions that have been made to alleviate hunger in West Hartford and throughout the area.

The Fern Street Food Ministry is a program of the Universalist Church of West Hartford, located at 433 Fern Street – the home base for its programs and where the appreciation breakfast was held.

Fern Street Food Ministry Volunteer Appreciation breakfast. Photo credit: Mick Melvin

What started a decade ago as volunteers assisting with distribution from the Foodshare Mobile Truck to 72 local residents has now expanded to five programs that assist West Hartford residents as well as those from surrounding communities with not only a bi-weekly distribution from the Connecticut Foodshare mobile truck but also community breakfast held in collaboration with the mobile truck distribution, a backpack program that operates year-round, a sandwich program for House of Bread, and a Food Pantry which launched in 2016 and operates the third Saturday of every month.

Carol Oriol-Jones, co-leader of the Food Pantry, said the strong support of the church has been instrumental to the impact they Food Ministry has been able to have in the community.

“I’m so proud that we served more than 90,000 meals – more than 26 tons of food – to about 600 families in the past year,” Oriol-Jones said. About 300 clients are served each week through various aspects of the ministry.

Fern Street Backpacks partners with West Hartford Public Schools and library services to provide weekend food support for students and their families in need of nutrition support over the weekends and school breaks. The program packs and delivers food bags year-round to food insecure students in all 16 of the public schools in town, with 25,000 pounds of food and non-food items distributed annually.

While throughout the COVID-19 pandemic they made necessary accommodations, including being flexible about how they serve the public, the Fern Street Food Ministry remained 100% open, even in the early days when most people were staying home. They also proved they can fund themselves, Oriol-Jones said, and continue to strive to do more and expand programs.

The Fern Street Food Ministry includes 170 volunteers, supported by leadership that has donated roughly 104 hours per month to activities that include purchasing, picking up, delivering, sorting, packing, and distributing food.

Trips to the grocery store can be frustrating for everyone with rising prices and supply chain issues. Oriol-Jones said that while she might think to herself, “Woe is me” when she can’t get her favorite brand of marinara sauce at the supermarket, her role with the Food Pantry, and understanding the scarcity of food that people in the community face, is a reality check.

“We’ve seen growth in the number we serve across all the programs with a sharp increase for the backpack program due to increased awareness within the schools,” Oriol-Jones said.

It’s also wonderful to see so many people volunteering their time, energy, and resources, that they’re doing the “right thing” for the community,” she said. Some recipients have even brought back treats they have made with food items the’ve received as a token of appreciation for the volunteers.

Rev. Adam Robersmith of the Universalist Church of West Hartford was the keynote speaker at the Fern Street Food Ministry Volunteer Appreciation breakfast. Photo credit: Mick Melvin

At the appreciation breakfast, keynote speaker Rev. Dr. Adam Robersmith, the senior minister at the Universalist Church of West Hartford, and Vinh Vuong, Network Relations representative from Connecticut Foodshare, were among those who spoke about the important work being done by Fern Street Food Ministry to help people in West Hartford and neighbors in the surrounding communities.

Many of the volunteers also spoke, sharing what the experience means to them.

Oriol-Jones attributes much of the success of the Fern Street Food Ministry to “a dedicated core of volunteers, diverse clientele, excellent network of partners, and a strong name recognition in the community.” They also include teens among their volunteers, which offers growth and learning opportunities.

Challenges remain, she said, and include continuing to grow the diversity of the volunteer pool, improving the quality and nutritional value of the food they distribute and serve, standing up for injustice and focusing on the gender inequality of needy households that are often headed by women, and better coordinating the various Fern Street Food Ministry programs to serve families.

Tai Feaster is coordinator for the Universalist Church’s social justice and food ministries, and anyone interested in donating, volunteering, or interested in additional information can reach her at 860-233-3669 or at [email protected]. More information can also be found on the Universalist Church of West Hartford website.

Donations are always welcome, Oriol-Jones said, and while food donations are appreciated, financial donations can make an even greater impact because they are able to purchase items through Connecticut Foodshare at a large discount. “For every $10 donation we can provide about 25 meals … for a $50 donation that’s about 125 meals. That’s helping so many families,” she said.

The Fern Street Food Ministry includes the following leadership:

  • Mobile Pantry – Lisa Sgamboti
  • Backpack Program – Katherine Wilson
  • Have A Heart Sandwich Program and Community Breakfast – Peggy Gray
  • Food Pantry – Nancy Meskan and Carol Oriol-Jones
  • Steering Committee – Beth Brigham and Deirdre King-Hooge

Fern Street Food Ministry Volunteer Appreciation breakfast. Photo credit: Mick Melvin

Fern Street Food Ministry Volunteer Appreciation breakfast. Photo credit: Mick Melvin

Fern Street Food Ministry Volunteer Appreciation breakfast. Photo credit: Mick Melvin

Fern Street Food Ministry Volunteer Appreciation breakfast. Photo credit: Mick Melvin

Fern Street Food Ministry Volunteer Appreciation breakfast. Photo credit: Mick Melvin

Fern Street Food Ministry Volunteer Appreciation breakfast. Photo credit: Mick Melvin

Fern Street Food Ministry Volunteer Appreciation breakfast. Photo credit: Mick Melvin

Carol Oriol-Jones, co-leader of the food pantry speaks at the Fern Street Food Ministry Volunteer Appreciation breakfast. Photo credit: Mick Melvin

Fern Street Food Ministry Volunteer Appreciation breakfast. Photo credit: Mick Melvin

Fern Street Food Ministry Volunteer Appreciation breakfast. Photo credit: Mick Melvin

Fern Street Food Ministry Volunteer Appreciation breakfast. Photo credit: Mick Melvin

Fern Street Food Ministry Volunteer Appreciation breakfast. Photo credit: Mick Melvin

Fern Street Food Ministry Volunteer Appreciation breakfast. Photo credit: Mick Melvin

Fern Street Food Ministry Volunteer Appreciation breakfast. Photo credit: Mick Melvin

Fern Street Food Ministry Volunteer Appreciation breakfast. Photo credit: Mick Melvin

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