OLD LYME — Every Saturday morning for over 20 years the First Congregational Church has opened its doors to the hungry of the region. Breakfast is served at 9 a.m. and guests are able to shop at no cost through a pantry for groceries.
“It used to be that every week 90 or even up to 100 people would come,” said Tia Smith, the current coordinator of food pantry volunteers from St. Ann’s parish. “People have heard either how good the breakfast is or how complete the pantry is. We’ve ended up with a lot of guests from Norwich and New London.”
The philosophy of the Old Lyme Pantry, according to Smith, is “if you’re hungry, you’re welcome.”
And that’s the problem for Shoreline Soup Kitchen and Pantries (SSKP), the parent organization for Old Lyme’s food pantry. SSKP’s mission, as defined in 2009, is to serve residents from 11 Connecticut towns, but neither Norwich nor New London.
The 11 towns are Old Lyme, Lyme, East Lyme, Old Saybrook, Essex, Deep River, Chester, Westbrook, Killingworth, Clinton and Madison. The primary mission of SSKP is to ensure that residents of these towns do not go hungry.
“I would like to make sure that the food insecurity needs of the people in these towns are met before I start feeding people in other places,” said Ellen Rabin, the executive director of SSKP since July 2017. “Shoreline Soup Kitchen and Pantries cannot take on the food insecurity of New London, it is beyond our financial resources.”
The policy of SSKP is to ask for identification with proof of residence for all individuals registering to receive food at the pantry or soup kitchen. That is a common policy across the state and country for all food pantries that are not federally funded.
Organizations that receive federal funds through the Emergency Food Assistance Program – like the Connecticut Food Bank – must provide food to anyone regardless of their residency. With the help of the Connecticut Food Bank, SSKP is able to provide everyone who walks through their doors with at least some food.
“Anyone who comes to a pantry is still given a couple bags of groceries and we try to help them find resources near where they live,” Rabin said. “But, I need to be a steward of the donor dollars.”
However, Old Lyme has had many users of the food pantry and soup kitchen who were grandfathered in before the 2009 decision.
In March, SSKP informed the churches in Old Lyme that they would be temporarily closing the food pantry and then permanently closing it due to the high percentage of individuals outside of the region that were utilizing the pantry’s services. The board of SSKP has since rolled back that decision, but negotiations about how the two organizations can continue in partnership are ongoing.
“We have worked carefully with the board to make sure that we stay open to serve people in Old Lyme and outside of Old Lyme,” said Steve Jungkeit, the senior minister at the First Congregational Church. “But a lot of folks feel really hurt. They are disappointed.”
The volunteers from the Old Lyme churches have not taken well to the attempted curbing of their volunteer spirit.
“They are unhappy with the philosophy of limiting it,” Smith said. “They thought it was going well and we were doing a great job. We were horrified that we were criticized for giving away too much.”
From the SSKP perspective, however, there are many more hungry residents to feed on the western shore of the river that need more attention. SSKP served about 8,000 meals in 2018, but that is just a fraction of the working poor that live in the 11-town region according to the United Way ALICE report from 2018.
“I can see that I am just touching these towns. The best we are doing is in Westbrook where we reached just over 15 percent of the ALICE population,” Rabin said. “Until I feel that I really am reaching the people in my towns that need us, we can’t expand. That is my priority.”
Rabin said her goal for the coming year is to increase outreach to make sure those in need in the 11-town region are aware of SSKP’s services. This summer SSKP is launching a new pop-up pantry in Deep River to help serve the families who typically rely on school meals to feed their children. If the pop-up pantry is successful, SSKP will look for a more permanent location in the tri-town [Chester, Deep River, Essex] area, Rabin said.
As discussions between the First Congregational Church and SSKP proceed, the possibility of separating is definitely on the table.
The First Congregational Church, according to Jungkeit, hopes that it does not come to that.
“The hope is to find some way to keep going with their support. I’m really optimistic that we can make that happen,” Jungkeit said. “It’s been a really good partnership. Our church has benefited and appreciated it.”
For SSKP, a split may seem like a more realistic option.
“It would be wonderful if they became independent. I’m very supportive of that,” Rabin said. “They can go with their mission of providing food, but I need to run SSKP in a financially responsible way that meets our mission.”