Free Food Tables are Popping up in Yards Across Region

Categories: Food

As summer and fall vegetables started popping up in gardens around southeastern Connecticut, baskets started popping up in front yards with that day’s bounty and a small sign saying “Food is Free.”

The boxes are part of Free Store Connecticut, a local manifestation of a greater movement to build community through sharing food.

The “store” currently has 10 tables in six towns around New London County where people can take or leave food and other items at no cost and with no questions asked. Other locations are open as produce is available. Exact locations can be found on the Free Store Connecticut Facebook page, but all locations have a “Food is Free” sign with the group’s contact information.

Montville resident Ellen Hillman started volunteering at a food pantry in Old Lyme 11 years ago. She noticed that while there often wasn't enough food for patrons at the end of the line, the pantry was throwing out leftover meat and produce, and there had to be a way to get those leftovers to those people before they went bad.

Hillman met Norwich resident Serena Rice, another long-time food pantry volunteer, through a local canning event intended for preserving produce before it spoils. Rice founded Free Store Connecticut after being inspired by the Atlanta Free Store, which offers donated food, clothing and other supplies free of charge to anyone who might need it.

“People can come and take only what they’ll use,” Rice said, comparing the setup to a grocery store. “If they don’t know what a rutabaga is, they don’t have to take a rutabaga, although we do educate them on how to cook things.”

Free Store Connecticut currently is run out of Rice’s truck, which she uses to deliver donated produce and other food items to drop-off locations around southeastern Connecticut.

Many of these drops are located in public places near schools or parks or near housing developments like Branford Manor in Groton. Produce also is delivered to the permanent tables in Ledyard, Norwich, Groton, Jewett City, Plainfield, and Hillman’s house in Montville. Exact locations are available on their Facebook page.

Rice said the tables are closing for the winter on Oct. 15 because of weather concerns, but the group plans to make trips to the towns twice a month to deliver hot meals and any fresh food that may have been donated.

Food is donated by local farms and gardeners who have a surplus of a crop or produce that is safe to eat, but can’t be marketed to the public because of blemishes or other defects. Hillman said the food is inspected daily to make sure nothing goes bad.

“If I get a case of tomatoes and they start to get soft or whatever, I can slice them up and dehydrate them, and we’ll offer them through the winter,” she said. “You could add them to thicken sauce, add them to soups and casseroles, whatever.”

Free Store Connecticut hosted a dehydration seminar after their Oct. 2 volunteer orientation to showcase new ways to prepare fruits and vegetables before they spoil.

Rice launched a fundraising campaign in July to purchase a small school bus that could serve as a mobile food pantry so people could pick up food and other items in a space safe from the elements and the stigma associated with having to ask for help.

“Nobody gets joy about having to ask for help, so we want to be able to provide the help when they need it but also teach them ways to make their dollars stretch,” she said.

Free Store Connecticut is working closely with the Eastern Connecticut Community Gardens Association to teach gardening skills so people in need are able to grow their own food. Even without a yard, people can grow crops like potatoes in repurposed garbage cans on their porch. Rice also has gotten calls from groups elsewhere in the state who are looking to launch a free food program in other cities such as Hartford and Bridgeport.

“It’s a whole movement of people starting to take on to the idea that food really should be free,” she said. “At the end of the day, food builds community, and that’s what we want to do.” 

by Amanda Hutchinson / via TheDay


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