By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Door to door: Following one food donation, from giver to receiver
This can of cranberry sauce is going home with Conner, 3 years old, and his grandfather Bill Jones, who is raising him. - photo by Deseret News

   Correction: The byline in the print version of this article said the author was Kimberly Curtis. The article's author is actually Lane Anderson. The editor apologizes for this mistake and hopes to avoid future occurrences of inaccuracy.

It’s a few days before Thanksgiving, and John Drobnyk is just finishing pre-holiday errands.
    But this one might be the most important.
    He pulls up in front of an unassuming warehouse building in his brown sedan and dashes through the morning drizzle with plastic bags stuffed with food — minced tomatoes, some frozen pot pies. He runs back out to his car for a second bag that contains a small frozen turkey and cans of cranberry sauce. He logs his donation in the notebook at the front desk, and he's back on his way.
    It’s a small gesture, but he makes a point of giving food every year, Drobnyk says on his way out. It's a simple way for him to make a difference during the holidays.
    Thousands of people like Drobnyk, 69, will donate to food banks like this one in Southeastern Connecticut this holiday season — through food drives at schools, churches, clubs and drop-off centers.
    But, where, exactly do these food donations end up?
    We followed Drobnyk's donation — at one food bank in this New England suburb — to find out.
    Inside the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center in New London, Connecticut, bags of onions and crates of apples are piled waist-high under the fluorescent lights. Over the course of two days, this location will provide complete holiday meal packages to over 3,000 households.
    Jennifer Blanco, who orders the food here, began preparation for this months ago — stockpiling 2,500 boxes of stuffing, 770 cans of cranberry, 286 cases of potatoes, 189 cases of sweet potatoes and 196 cases of apples. The crowning glory, of course, are the birds: 2,454 turkeys and 580 chickens stacked in an industrial freezer.
    Most food donations around the country spend time in a facility like this one, where they are checked for freshness, sorted, and shipped out to nearby pantries.
    Volunteers wearing aprons and gloves pile food onto dollies and line them up at the delivery bay where trucks are arriving in the morning rain. Over the course of 48 hours, this food bank will provide meals for 9,000 people.
   Meanwhile, Drobnyk's donation is wheeled into the warehouse with other last-minute drop-offs, and a volunteer pops them into a crate for today's pickup.
   America's hunger problem has reached an all-time high: 49 million Americans don't have enough to eat — that's the population of New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania combined. Sixteen million of those are children.
    Feeding America, the nation's largest hunger relief organization, provided 3.3 billion meals last year. SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps, were cut by another $5 billion last year, leaving charity organizations like Feeding America to fill the gap.
    “There have been a lot of food stamp cuts and the income requirement for food assistance has been dropped to a lower level, so the only resource families have is the emergency food system,” says Blanco, who says that some of the pantries that she provided food for used to come once a month, but now they come two or three times a month.
    “They are feeling it. We are, too. The need is up. If assistance programs are cut, the only backup is pantries.”

First stop — food bank

    The United Way food bank relies on local donations for about half of its food. Half the turkeys for this year's feast came from local families and companies. The other half were purchased from Wal-Mart, who slashed the price from $1.30 a pound to just 80 cents.
    "The community really responds," says Blanco. "The problem is, some of the families that used to help give now need help from us themselves."
    Blanco rounded up about half the food for the meals in local food drives, and the other half she ordered through Connecticut Food Bank, which gets its food from the Feeding America network.
    The last truck to arrive this morning is a Penske moving van that's been painted over in sunny yellow, with the letters and logo from its past life still peeking through. Behind the wheel is Sister Mary Grace, 51, wearing her long, black habit; she jumps climbs out of the truck with quick energy and a ready smile.

Second stop — food pantry

    Sister Mary Grace grew up in southeastern Connecticut, and became a nun when she was in her early twenties. Her youthful exuberance lend her a girlishness that makes her appear much younger than her 51 years. She backs up her yellow truck — now laden with turkeys and trimmings from the food bank — to Sisters of Charity, the convent, girl's school and food pantry run by the Catholic Church on Main Street. Her food pantry will pass out Thanksgiving meals to 150 families.
    Inside the food pantry, pictures of the Virgin Mary are framed by jars of peanut butter and cans of baked beans. A small statue of St. Vincent de Paul — the first priest to get permission from Rome to have sisters move out of the cloister and do active work with the needy — overlooks a shelf stocked with tuna.
    "He's the patron saint of the poor," explains Sister Mary Grace, "and if there is a patron saint of food pantries, he's it."
    Baltic, Connecticut, was a bustling cotton mill town until the 1960s, but the mill shut down more than 40 years ago. Two of the other main employers in town — Electric Boat, or EB as it’s known locally, and the pharmaceutical company Pfizer — have laid off thousands in the last decade.
    Baltic was once a typical middle-class suburb, but today it upends the urban poverty story: it’s not an inner-city ghetto, it’s a dilapidated Currier and Ives. On Main Street, the Queen Anne porches are sagging, and paint is peeling from the trim.
    More than 21,000 New London county residents are living below the poverty line, and United Way says that the volume of food it distributes has leaped from 834,000 pounds in 2001 to 3 million this year.
    Sister Mary Grace thinks of Baltic, where rents are cheaper than nearby Norwich, as a "last stop" for people who are struggling in the area. "It's a pocket for the poor," she says.
    It's hard to see so many local families going without — she keeps a small stockpile of donated coats and boots for children — but she sees her job as providing "hope" by treating people with kindness and respect. She tries to treat peope that visit the pantry like family. "That brings healing," she says.

Last stop — Home

    Three young women, volunteers from local Mitchell College, arrive to unpack the sunflower-colored truck. Sister Mary Grace has been saving up boxes for months for this event.
    At 3 p.m., a small line begins to form outside the pantry door. Sister Mary takes her station at a small table at the front door and greets people as they arrive.
   One of them is Karon Ashe, a middle-aged mother of three who wears her hair in a neat bob. She was laid off last March from the nearby Foxwoods Casino after working there for 10 years as a purchasing manager where she made $25 an hour. Now she works two jobs — at Wendy's and Shoprite — but the income from working two jobs doesn't pay as much as her previous full-time work.
    Like many places in the country that are struggling in the post-recession slump, the problem isn't just unemployment — it's underemployment. Much of the job growth in the last five to six years are in low-wage positions. There are two million fewer mid- and high-earning jobs, according to National Employment Law Project data, and 1.85 million for low-wage jobs.
    "Less money comes in, but the bills stay the same," says Ashe.
    Like many people visiting the pantry today, she got a ride with a friend. She says that her family is now down to one car, which her husband took to work today. Transportation is often an issue for low-income suburbanites, because public transportation is spotty.
    "It's hard to go to a food bank," says Ashe, who avoided using the pantry for months. "People see you and think you're lazy, that you don't want to work.”
    Valerie Fillatreault comes to the pantry bearing a pan of brownies as a gift, and Sister Mary Grace asks about her sciatica. Sister Mary knows almost everyone who comes in here by name.
    Fillatreault and her husband have been coming to the pantry once a week since they retired a few years ago — she worked at a bank and her husband worked at a hardware shop. She calls the pantry a "godsend."
   Fillatreault is one of 4 million senior citizens who face hunger, and many choose between medications and money for food, according to recent Feeding America research.
    Around 5 p.m., the number of boxes has started to thin, and volunteers carry some of the last turkeys to people's cars.
    Sister Mary is agitated because she's been expecting a family with young children, and it's almost time to close. She picks up her skirts and walks across the street, and soon returns with Bill Jones, 57, who is carrying his 3-year old grandson, Conner.
    Bill has a graying beard and a gruff voice, and Conner is a cherubic boy with pink cheeks and wide brown eyes. Jones beams at the child, and it’s clear that he is grandfather's pride and joy.
    Jones is a machine operator, and he and his wife are raising Conner and his sister. Jones underwent open-heart surgery 10 weeks ago, and he’s anxious to heal, he says, and get back to work driving a backhoe. As a contract worker, he doesn't get benefits.
    Volunteers grab a turkey and lift one last food box. Sister Mary Grace poses with Conner and a can of cranberry sauce to document the can's final destination.
    The can is placed into the box with the rest of the food, and volunteers carry it, along with the turkey, across the street to a brown apartment house that's listing just slightly to one side. Trailing them is Jones, carrying the toddler in his arms.

Sign up for the Herald's free e-newsletter