How a Danbury nonprofit plans to ‘rescue’ 1 million pounds of food this year for households in need

DANBURY — The young group of seven volunteers from the Church of the Latter Day Saints arrive at the Triangle Street warehouse in Danbury each week in two groups.

First, the boys help sort and place on the shelves two truck-loads of donated food dropped off that morning, then the girls come to pack up the more than 100 boxes of food to make sure they are ready to be picked up the next day.

Organized by the Danbury nonprofit Community Food Rescue, the effort is just one piece of a wider logistical system helping more than a dozen local food pantries and organization to source, transport and distribute food to thousands of Danbury households who rely on their support.

Hired as manager of the nonprofit in 2018, Linda Hutchings said she started working with a single driver to pick up and deliver “food on its last legs” — how she described the expiring food items sourced from local donors — “so, it immediately goes to a pantry that serves that day.”

Sourcing this food that would otherwise be thrown away based on its expiration date requires Hutchings to build relationships with local store managers to help keep tabs, or “a trail,” on when food items might be approaching their expiration date.

In 2021, Community Food Rescue facilitated the rescue of 862,000 pounds of food that would have otherwise been thrown away but instead helped feed thousands of households each week.

For 2022, Hutchings, a resident of Ridgefield, said the goal is to increase the figure to 1 million pounds of food saved from the trash.

“I would like to do more,” she said.

Delivery demand

Part of the Community Action Agency of Western Connecticut with funding support from Peter and Carmen Lucia Buck Foundation, Community Food Rescue today operates its own warehouse and employs Hutchings and three drivers who work five days a week across three shifts using two vehicles to collect and distribute hundreds of thousands of pounds of donated of food to local food banks and other organizations serving thousands of Danbury households.

Before managing food sourcing and procurement for the Connecticut Food Bank, Hutchings worked at Pepperidge Farms as an account manager for the company’s Stop & Shop supermarkets account. In that role, she interacted with a network of store managers and honed an acumen for using spreadsheets and a host of other data management tools that have become valuable in her post-career endeavor.

“I tried to retire,” she said with a laugh. “I did try to retire when I left the CT Food Bank, but I got sucked back in because Danbury is like the step-child on the far right of the state.”

Over the years she spent volunteering at her church in the city, Hutchings said she noticed the dozen-or-so volunteer-based agencies serving food to local households in Danbury lacked important transportation “capacity,” meaning they didn't have enough staff or vehicles to pick up food.

For example, she said the Salvation Army branch relies on the organization to deliver food stored in its warehouse. That’s true of Victory Christian Center, which has a van but not enough staff.

“So that is where I came in,” Hutchings added. “It became necessary to get a vehicle out here to deliver food.”

Now, drawing from her days at Pepperidge Farms and the CT Food Bank, Hutchings tracks the value of the food procured using spreadsheets. Distributed in neat rows of data, she can then easily provide them to a donor grocery store for their own accounting purposes or to use as evidence of the organization’s impact when applying for state and federal grants and other funding sources.

“The demand became so great that once I had the truck it was like, OK, we only have food the day of so I started outsourcing procurement and opened a warehouse,” Hutchings recalled.

“Now I can take care of more agencies and can get more food in to my building,” she added.

A week at the warehouse

Either directly or through its partner agencies and organizations, Hutchings estimates Community Food Rescue support “thousands of [Danbury] households every year who are eating rescued food and are so grateful for it,” with the Danbury warehouse serving as a hub for the effort.

Opened in September 2021, the 2,700-square-foot space complete with an eight-pallet freezer that stores all of the meat for the Daily Bread Food Pantry — Danbury’s largest food pantry — allows Community Food Rescue added flexibility to establish more relationships with additional agencies and food donors.

Hutchings said the trucks are sent out five days a week starting early in the morning and making rounds to various food donors to pick up items while making delivery stops throughout the day. On Monday, she said drivers pick up, on average, about 4,000 pounds of food that will make it’s way to the Victory Christian Center, Daily Bread, the Salvation Army and other food pantries.

On Wednesday, groups of volunteers also prepare packages for the nonprofit’s “Community Choice” offerings to ready for Thursday, when about 120 cars typically show up to select from the stockpiled food items. Other stops throughout the week include picking up donated containers from the Chick-fil-A restaurant in the Danbury Fair mall, (“buying paper boxes would kill me financially,” Hutchings noted), and a delivery stop at the Jericho Partnership.

The activity winds down by Friday when the warehouse gets a deep clean.

A food effort for the future

President Joe Biden’s administration announced this year that for the first time in over 50 years the White House would hold a national Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health.

Scheduled for September, a White House press release says among the goals of the event is to “accelerate progress to end hunger” and “improve nutrition” as part of the administration’s goal to improve hunger and increase healthy activity in the country by 2030 “so fewer Americans experience diet-related diseases...”

Nationwide, U.S. Department of Agriculture, or the USDA, estimates one in 10 American households are food insecure, defined by the agency as households that, at times during the year, were “uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food.”

Rates are higher than the national average for all households with children, particularly those headed by a single parent, along with low-income and Black and Hispanic households, according to the federal data.

In Connecticut, 428,800 people, or one in every eight people, face hunger, including 109,480 children, according to estimates from the advocacy group Feeding America.

In April and May 2021, a Connecticut Foodshare survey found food security disparities before and after the COVID-19 crisis. Prior to COVID, 40 percent of people of color and 24 percent of white residents were food insecure, compared to 43 percent of people of color and 26 percent of white respondents experiencing food insecurity one year later, according to the report.

Hutchings said she and other members of the Danbury Food Collaborative, a partnership bringing together food pantries and congregate meal providers in the city together to address the needs of food insecure citizens, would organize a submission ahead of the White House forum and welcomed the potential for added federal support.

Along with the rescued food, Hutchings said Community Food Rescue uses state grants and donations to purchase and source food, primarily from the CT Food Bank, all of it part of an annual operating budget of about $150,000, most of which goes to paying salaries for herself and the drivers.

Rising inflation costs and food donors who are increasingly further away from Danbury have strained the organization in recent months, said Hutchings, adding, “I am constantly evaluating and using my own car.”

“The most important issue facing all organizations is transportation,” she reiterated.

Recently, Community Food Rescue established deliveries of food boxes to elderly residents living at four senior living apartment buildings in Danbury and is seeking partners who provide student meals during the summer to see if they might help with delivery.

To keep expanding, Hutchings said the nonprofit could use another van that has a refrigerator so they can travel further to food sources; and they could use other things like more shelving and a forklift for the warehouse. More volunteers would be great, too.

Another goal still involves transportation but is more visionary.

It would require a retired beer delivery truck, with cooled storage bays all along the exterior of the vehicle, to be re-commissioned into a mobile food pantry used to reach Danbury residents who can’t already access local food pantries during the week, Hutchings explained.

“The working poor that are working at places like Walmart making $15 hour at night and get out at 5 [a.m.]...they don’t have an opportunity to get to a pantry because they don’t have one Saturday,”she said.

And it wouldn’t take a lot of volunteers to operate, she added. “...I am just opening the bays and handing the food out.”