Town officials on Tuesday approved New Canaan’s first-ever lease agreement with the longtime host of a local food pantry that increasingly is in demand.
Under the agreement, New Canaan retroactive to Jan. 1 and through Dec. 31 will pay $1,200 per month to St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, then $1,250 per month for the next calendar year.
Members of the Board of Selectmen at their regular meeting noted the many infrastructure improvements that St. Mark’s has made on its own—including grading its driveway around back where the pantry is located and makings its steps ADA-compliant—thanking the church by way of unanimously approving the new lease agreement.
“I would like to thank St. Mark’s for hosting us for so many years at no cost,” Selectman Beth Jones said at the meeting, held in New Canaan Police Department Training Room.
She added: “Everybody is treated as a special client and they can choose what they need and there are fresh vegetables and they really do a tremendous job.”
Lease payments are expected to be covered by a fund that includes donations in support of the food pantry, officials said. (There does not appear to be a line item in the fiscal year 2015 operating budget for the pantry specifically.) New Canaan Health & Human Services Director Carol McDonald said that the pantry is feeding 180—sometimes 200 people—every two weeks.
“It’s much more than anywhere else in surrounding towns because our pantry runs very differently than anyone else’s,” McDonald said. “We are very well-stocked and we just have a tremendous need here.”
Once an emergency stopgap for families in a difficult situation—for example, where income earners have lost jobs—food pantries in lower Fairfield County increasingly have become a more regular source of sustenance on which many families have come to rely.
In New Canaan, the entirely volunteer-run food pantry is more than 10 years old and from the very early going has been a joint effort of the town and Oenoke Ridge Road church, said Richard DePatie, parish administrator at St. Mark’s.
During an interview after the selectmen meeting, DePatie said those who operate the pantry include St. Mark’s members and non-members alike, and added that three of its major organizers are Wendy Hilboldt, Maggie Downes-Angus and Carol Harvey.
Asked for his thoughts on news of the approved lease agreement, DePatie said: “We are pleased with the resolution and feel that it’s good for both the town and for St. Mark’s, and we are happy to be the host for this agency.” (The church uses a piece of its land, the “Gospel Garden,” to grow vegetables that are then made available at the pantry, see photo on right.)
McDonald said during the meeting that food pantry operation has become “more formalized.”
“It is now under my department and the Human Services commissioners for oversight, which I think just kind of makes it a little bit stronger and it’s all run by volunteers,” she said. “We have fabulous volunteers that run it and they will continue to run it and are happy to do so. And we will work with them every chance we possibly can.”
Selectmen sought clarification from McDonald on whether Human Services had investigated other possible locations for the pantry (no—see below), whether the fund was healthy enough that the pantry effectively would self-sustain through 2015 (yes) and for clarification on the town’s support for the pantry to date (such as helping to pay for a repainting of the area earlier this year, prior to lease agreement discussions).
Those discussions have included town lawyers and have been going on for months, McDonald said.
The health and human services director said New Canaan’s goal should be to relocate the pantry at some point in a municipal building.
“I think my ultimate goal would be after the renovation of Town Hall, that we try to find a town building where we move the food pantry,” McDonald said.