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Running on Empty

Local Pantry Reduced to Crumbs

For over half a century, the Spanish Speaking Center of New Britain has provided residents with services ranging from adult education and career development, to consumer protection and legislative advocacy. Like many organizations, they have been losing funding with no end in sight, leaving their community pantry with meager offerings.

“Our funding from the City used to be $39,000 per year,” said Executive Director, Mary L. Sanders. “They cut it to $12,000. The Mayor blamed the Common Council—I’m not happy with them.”

Funding from the state has also dwindled over the years, leaving the budget for the entire organization below $200,000.

“There was a block grant of $17,000 per year that we used to stock the pantry, but that was eliminated in 2011. Now we’ve absorbed those costs into a $116,000 Hispanic Human Development fund from the State,” she said.

That fund had previously been $150,000.

“We used to use a spare room to store extra food that wouldn’t fit in the pantry,” says Sanders. “But now… we have some things for a tag sale—hopefully we can sell them so we can buy food.”

The pantry, like all of the Spanish Speaking Center, is open to the entire community despite what the name may imply; the Center simply seeks to be “one stop shopping” for people who don’t have confident command of the English language, enabling them to work towards a GED, learn English, gain computer skills and get information and advocacy all under the same roof.

“We used to be able to support people in four languages, here: English, Spanish, Polish and French,” Sanders says. “I was quite proud of that.”

The Center has two full-time staff, three part-time staff and five subsidized workers, as well as volunteers.

Visitors to the pantry are now only allowed to take five items, at most, per visit; the pantry is open to senior citizens on Wednesdays and to the general public on Tuesdays and Fridays.

“A lot of people think that we get the food for free, but our orders are normally between $400 and $500, up to $800 if there’s a lot of tuna and peanut butter—people need the protein,” she said.

Sanders estimates that between sixty and seventy percent of the over 2,500 clients served by the Center each year can become self-sufficient, given the proper support and resources. The rest are permanently disabled or otherwise unable to work full-time, even with updated skills. Some people only need to make use of the Center once or twice, but others have longer term needs to be addressed.

Sanders said that food drives help, but cannot be treated as a sustainable backbone. Donations come in bag-by-bag and leave even more quickly.

The Center has made a point to cut costs; Sanders diligently inspects the building to make sure that lights are not left on and that faucets are not leaking. Employees share computers and phones to avoid the costs of additional equipment.

“The money has run out,” she says. “We don’t know what’s going to happen after June 30th.”

While the focus of the Spanish Speaking Center and Sanders’ background are both in “Welfare-to-Work” programs such as adult education and training, the pantry is vital to those who make use of the Center. It can be difficult for individuals to pursue a course of self-sufficiency when they or their children are hungry.

“Local churches used to bring us food—one church would always bring pasta and sauce, another would bring rice and beans, the other would bring tuna and peanut butter,” Sanders added. “We didn’t have to worry about it. But the churches are losing their funding, too.”

If you would like to donate money, non-perishable food items, tag sale items or children’s books to the Spanish Speaking Center or to hold a food drive or fundraiser to benefit their work, please contact Sanders. Checks can be made out to “Spanish Speaking Center,” memo: “Food Pantry” and mailed to their street address.

Mary L. Sanders, Executive Director, Spanish Speaking Center, 29 Cedar Street, New Britain, CT 06052.