Putting Food on Hartford’s Tables
A problem of access and af fordability
By Julia Werth
Every Thursday between 4 and 6 p.m. a bright blue school bus decorated with fruits and vegetables
pulls up outside the Asylum Hill Boys and Girls club of Hartford. Instead of children and knapsacks
filling each seat, baskets of fresh bananas, apples, yuka root, tomatoes and whatever may be in season at local farms are crammed in and awaiting purchase.
As parents begin to turn up, collecting their children at the end of the work day, they are often dragged on to the bus by an excited son or daughter. Many customers pay for their purchases using EBT cards from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a federal program to assist residents in financial need. Now known as SNAP, it was formerly known as Food Stamps.
Putting food on the table is a problem for many families and individuals in Hartford.
In a state where median family income is $70,331, it can be easy to assume that hunger is not a significant problem. In Hartford, however, where median family income is only $30,630 and 33.4 percent fall below the federal poverty level, the problem is very real. Nearly 13 percent of all SNAP recipients in Connecticut live in Hartford, a city with only about 3.5 percent of the state’s population, according to data from the state Department of Social Services.
If just putting food on the table is tough, imagine how much more difficult it is to provide nutritious food, including fresh fruits and vegetables. Processed food can be much cheaper, with a longer shelf life. It may be higher in fat and salt, with little nutritional value, but it fills stomachs and it’s available at every convenience store. In a city with just two full-sized supermarkets located miles away from the poorest neighborhoods, having the chance to purchase fresh fruits or vegetables at a reasonable price at the Hartford Mobile Market every week is an important one. Another operation, run by Foodshare, brings fresh foods to more than a dozen poor neighborhoods in Hartford every other week with refrigerated trucks.
In addition to the Boys and Girls Club, the Hartford Mobile Market makes nine other stops each week at a range of clinics, hospitals, community and senior centers. Some organizations, including Community Health Solutions, Charter Oak Health Center and Hartford Hospital, give clients $5 to $10 vouchers for fresh food from the bus. The bus, which is run by Hartford Food System (HFS) in cooperation with the Hispanic Health Council, has been in operation since 2014, expanding routes every year.
“Yes it’s fruit and vegetables,” said Shana Smith, director of the market bus. “But it’s way more than that when you’re dealing with seniors. When you’re dealing with people that are maybe coming out of the clinic, it’s way more than that.”
Serving children and the elderly is a very important part of her job, she said.
“I’m a firm believer that if you don’t take care of your children and your seniors you are failing,” Smith said. “If we get the kids we know we get the parents, and if we make the seniors happy we know we have their kids.”
Smith also runs HFS’s farmers’ market in the city’s North End during the warmer months.
Martha Page is the director of HFS, a non-profit organization that advocates for food equity and runs programs to improve nutrition and access to food in Hartford. After a successful career in the insurance industry, Page says she was drawn to work for food justice when she realized that nearly all of the students in a neighborhood school with which she was familiar qualified for free or reduced-price school lunches because of their families’ poverty.
“The idea of little kids going to school without food to eat,” she said, shaking her head. “We need to recognize our city’s children.”
The core problem is poverty, but its effects take many forms. The most obvious is lack of money to buy food. When the money runs out, the only alternative may be a food pantry or soup kitchen. Access is the other key. There are many poor Hartford residents that don’t have cars, and even mid-sized grocery stores are scarce in the heart of the city. They may have to make do with the high-priced, poor-quality, convenience food in their neighborhoods. For others, juggling child care and several jobs may make careful shopping and meal planning seem nearly impossible. There are multiple barriers to securing one, healthy meal a day, let alone three.
“A lot of people in urban areas keep quiet about what they lack, because they feel bad,” Smith said. “They can’t ‘have’ for their children and they’re doing the best they can.”
Food insecurity, as defined by the USDA, is limited or uncertain access to adequate food caused by economic or social conditions. Of all the cities and towns in Connecticut, Hartford is the most at risk when it comes to food insecurity, according to the Zwick Center for Food and Resource Policy at the University of Connecticut. It also ranks second highest in participation in federal and state-funded food assistance programs. Keeping food on everyone’s table takes a small army of volunteers and non-profit organizations in addition these federal, state and city programs.
“I know that we live in a virtual, healthy-food desert,” Smith said. “I know that ‘cause I’m a North End resident.” She notes that she is one of the residents “fortunate enough to have a car and accessibility.” Many don’t.
Page chairs the Hartford Advisory Commission on Food Policy, which includes Hartford residents and representatives of some of the organizations fighting Hartford’s food battle – the Hartford Public Schools, Foodshare, the Hispanic Health Council, the city Department of Health and Human Services, WIC (the Women, Infants and Children supplemental food program), Billings Forge community organization, the Knox Parks Foundation, Food Corps CT, the YMCA ‘s Reach Coalition, HPC Food Service, Urban Alliance and the University of Saint Joseph.
The volunteer group, supported with $3,000 to $5,000 from the city of Hartford, has been working on Hartford’s food problems for more 25 years. Its goals are to eliminate hunger, ensure that a wide variety of nutritious food is available to city residents, ensure that access to food is not limited by economic status, and ensure that the price of food in the city remains about equal to prices in the rest of the state. Its working groups tackle areas such as school gardens, summer meals, food waste, grocery stores and federal nutrition programs.
Any effort to name all the groups and organizations that are trying to solve Hartford food problems would come up short. They include researchers at the University of Connecticut, activists at End Hunger Connecticut!, and the churches and social organizations that operate about 50 food banks and more than 20 soup kitchens in the city.
Many organizations are devoted to filling an immediate need.
“The mobile market and the farmers market provide fresh food to people who may not be able to get it elsewhere,” Smith said.
Providing just a small amount of fresh food once a week is a huge deal in a city where nearly 52,000 residents receive aid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
In an attempt to find long-term solutions for access to affordable and healthy food for the citizens of Hartford, HFS was established in 1978. Today HFS runs programs such as the Mobile Food Market, the North End Farmer’s Market, educational programs for children, and an urban farming initiative. One program, SNAP-UP, provides $5 coupons for fresh fruits and vegetables to SNAP card users when they purchase any fruit or vegetable in a $10 or more purchase.
The Snap-Up program successfully completed its first full-fledged program at the end of March 2016 at the mid-sized grocery store C-Town, said Terri Zimmer, the Snap-Up Coordinator for HFS. A second program was launched in 2017 at C-Town. C-Town averages $2,090 a week in fruit and vegetable purchases with the vouchers.
“I’m a firm believer in that the way we define a problem is the way we solve the problem,” said Katie Martin, professor of nutrition and public policy at St. Joseph’s University in West Hartford. “Our solutions are almost entirely around food, food, food…We continuously pour food on the problem.”
Pouring food on the problem is the first reaction, Martin said, but it is only a short-term solution. For the long term, the solution must be approached differently, she said.
“There is an innovative program that was started in Hartford called Freshplace that they are now replicating in other sites,” Martin said. The approach favors “working with existing food pantries, meeting people where they are.”
At the Freshplace Food Pantry, clients receive not only
food, but education about how to meet their particular
nutritional needs while stretching food dollars. Patrons
are helped to choose foods that appeal to their cultural
backgrounds, and they learn how to prepare new foods.
The program is a collaboration between Foodshare, the
Junior League of Hartford and the Chrysalis Center at 255
Homestead Ave., which houses the pantry.
Freshplace also helps clients address the underlying problem
of poverty by linking them to community agencies and federal
food programs, such as SNAP, WIC and the National School
Breakfast and Lunch Program. Programs like SNAP, which require
documentation to determine eligibility, can be daunting for
potential participants, Martin said. Freshplace provides help.
“We are changing the mentality, changing the social norms of what we think a food pantry is about,” Martin said. “We need to be more creative…Food pantries have often been overlooked in our food system, but people are going [to them] chronically.”
Aside from Freshplace, there are about 50 food pantries in Hartford, and more than 20 soup kitchens.
This chronic dependence on food pantries’ often high sodium, canned items, as well as calorie-dense processed, non-perishables from corner stores leads to higher calorie intake and lower consumption of essential vitamins and mineral leading. The result can be chronic health problems, particularly obesity, which has grown considerably in Connecticut, but dramatically in Hartford.
Obesity causes increased inflammation in and stress on the body. Obese individuals are therefore much more likely to develop Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus due to the body’s inability to handle the large intake of sugar. The combination of obesity and Type 2 diabetes results in increased medical bills, making cheap food all the more necessary for individuals.
“It’s probably been 10 years now that we were calling it a paradox, food insecurity and obesity,” Martin said. “We know the solution to hunger; it’s food.” But the type of food matters. “When you’re doing your next food drive or thinking about the food in your food pantry…make sure that the food donations are healthy.”
The challenge – for the city, social agencies and residents – is not just providing food for today. It is also providing sound nutrition that will nurture growing children and improve the health of residents in the future.
Julia Werth is a 2017 graduate of the University of Connecticut with degrees in journalism and nutritional sciences.
By Steven Tucker
“We know the solution to hunger; it’s food”
– Katie Martin
C-Town market in Hartford, Conn. Stitched panoramic photo by Amar Batra
How one of the wealthiest states is entangled
with food insecurity
There’s More to Connecticut
Than What the Data Show
By Frank Greenwood Jr.
It’s not easy to measure the food needs of a city like Hartford.
First, there’s the matter of size. Hartford has more than 130,000 residents spread over more than 17 square miles.
Then there’s the problem of measuring income. More than 30 percent of Hartford’s residents live in poverty, about three times the percentage of the rest of the state.
Then there’s the problem of access to food. How many grocery stores sell things like fresh vegetables and fruit? How far away are they? How many people have transportation to get to them? And money to spend there? Or some kind of assistance to fill the money gap?
Researchers have considered all of those factors and more for the 169 towns and cities in Connecticut. The conclusion? When it comes to being able to find and afford nutritious food, there are problems across the state, but the biggest problems are in Hartford.
The Charles J. Zwick Center for Food and Resource Policy at the University of Connecticut and its predecessor, the Food Marketing Policy Center, have used quantitative research to identify high priority food issues since 1988. A major study, completed in partnership with UConn’s Cooperative Extension System, found that Hartford was the least food secure town or city in 2005. When an updated version was completed in 2012, Hartford was still at the bottom of the list. Another study is in progress.
The study ranks cities and towns in three different areas:
the percentage of population considered at risk for food insecurity,
the number of residents seeking food assistance, and the availability
of food retailers.
For food security, Hartford ranked 169th.. Others in the bottom 10
were New Haven, New Britain, Bridgeport, Windham, Waterbury, New
London, East Hartford, North Canaan and Norwich. At the top of the
list were affluent communities such as Wilton, Darien and New
Although the 2010 U.S. Census lists Connecticut as the fourth
wealthiest state in terms of per capita income, putting dinner on the
table is a problem for lots of residents.
“You can’t trust statewide stats. You need to look at localized
problems,” said Zwick Center director Rigoberto Lopez.
“It’s an issue of identifying the population at risk in a wealthy state.”
Although the median per capita income in Connecticut is $36,775 -- well above the national median of $27,334
-- the median in Hartford is the lowest in the state at $16,798.
Not surprisingly, those municipalities most in danger of food insecurity often have the most residents receiving some form of assistance, whether through the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps), the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program or through federal school lunch programs. New Haven residents top the list, followed by Hartford, New Britain, Waterbury, New London, Norwich, Bridgeport, Ansonia, Windham and Meriden.
Nearly one-in-four Hartford residents receive SNAP benefits, according to a 2016 report to the state legislature. That is nearly 52,000 of the 412,000 people who receive benefits statewide.
Hartford also has nearly 5,000 women, infants and children up to age 5 who receive help through the federal Women, Infants and Children program., according to the Department of Public Health. This accounts for nearly 10 percent of the state’s total WIC recipients.
Nathan Fiala, a UConn assistant professor of agricultural and resource economics and a member of the Zwick Center, said the city, “may be offering a lot of assistance, but they also need a lot more than other towns do.”
“The assistance programs aren’t perfect, we can always improve them, but they are necessary,” Lopez said.
Not included in the Zwick study are the myriad of privately operated food pantries and soup kitchens that see a need and try to help. In Hartford, there are 48 food pantries and 22 soup kitchens, most of which are run by religious organizations.
In the Zwick study, Hartford was near the top of the list – fifth -- for availability of food retailers, which includes not only supermarkets, local grocery stores and farmers markets, but also national fast food chains. By comparison, the United States Department of Agriculture, which does not include fast food restaurants or small grocery stores, classifies much of Hartford as a “food desert,” a place where people have limited access to healthful foods, even though fast foods and junk food may be widely available.
There are two large supermarkets in Hartford, eight neighborhood markets, and lots of convenience stores and fast food outlets according to the 2016 Annual Report of Hartford Commission on Food Policy.
“There are a lot of mom and pop stores that don’t have healthy food and normally are more expensive,” Lopez said. “The root cause of the problem is economics. If you don’t have money, you can’t buy a lot of things, including food.”
Even in neighborhoods with good markets, access to healthful food remains a problem, Lopez said.
“The supermarkets can be there,” he said, “ but if you don’t have any money, you can’t buy anything.”
Studies conducted by the Zwick Center help communities identify and quantify their problems.
“Our studies are a blunt object to identify areas with problems with food supply,” Lopez said, “But that’s just one component of the story.”
UConn’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity conducts research, gathers research and, unlike the Zwick Center, makes policy recommendations.
“The Rudd Center’s impact on food policy is undeniable,” said Kristen Cooksey Stowers, a postdoctoral fellow at the center “It’s hard to say how often policy suggestions are accepted, but it is a major influence.”
Recently, for example, the center suggested that organizations such as the Connecticut Food Bank focus as much on the nutritional value of the food it provides as on the quantity of food in general. The Food Bank provides food to community–based food programs, such as soup kitchens, food pantries and shelters in all of Connecticut except Hartford and Tolland counties. Foodshare provides the service in those counties. The groups work with donors, volunteers and food industry partners to supply the food.
“The amount of fresh produce going through now is much more than before,” Stowers said. “The impact of the Rudd Center is there.”
Frank Greenwood is a sophomore majoring in journalism and political science at the University of Connecticut.
Rigoberto Lopez Director; Professor and Department Head of the Zwick Center for Food and Resource Policy works in his office in the Young Building on the Storrs Campus. Photo by Amar Batra
“The supermarkets can be there, but if you don't have any money, you can't buy anything.”
– Rigoberto Lopez
Infographic by Makhala Huggins
Supplemental Benefits Means Survival for Residents
By Michelle Kalupski and Karla Santos
Seven years ago, Lisset Holandes she was a teen mother with an infant. Since then she has graduated from Stone Academy as a medical assistant and is now attending Capital Community College, working toward an associates degree in social services.
Until three months ago, she needed the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program to help feed herself and her two children. Now she has a fulltime job at the Hispanic Health Council, where she helps other young mothers who are where she was.
“There are a lot of other women out there in the same position as me,” she said, trying to feed their families and make better lives for their families. “The SNAP is a big, big help.”
More than 50,000 Hartford residents get assistance bringing healthy food to the table through the SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. Without such assistance, these residents would more frequently face no-win decisions like deciding whether to pay their rent, buy necessary medicines or purchase groceries.
Ana Rojas, like many SNAP recipients, tries to shop every two weeks, budgeting by dividing her monthly SNAP allotment in half to try to make it cover the month. If she runs out, she goes to food pantries for help feeding her family of four.
Who gets SNAP benefits?
“You have to be really poor to get SNAP,” said Ann Ferris, a researcher and retired professor of medicine, nutrition and public health at the University of Connecticut.
Typically, household gross monthly income must be no more than 130 percent of the poverty level. In Hartford, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines that to mean that an individual earns no more than $12,060 a year. The average monthly benefit is $126 per person, about $1.40 per person per meal.
Recipients are also supposed to spend 30 percent of their own financial resources on food, according to the USDA. By the end of the month, SNAP benefits and money for groceries tend to run out, which has been experienced first hand by Magaly Castro on many occasions.
“It goes by fast,” Castro said. “They think it is enough, but honestly with my situation, with five kids at home, it’s not enough. I have to feed my kids.”
The USDA tracks SNAP users by congressional district. In the 1st Congressional District, which includes Hartford and stretches from Winsted to Cromwell, 40 percent of the households that receive SNAP benefits have children under 18. Thirty-five percent include someone who is 60 or older. Nearly half the applicants identify as white, and about one-quarter identify as black. Approximately 40 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino, regardless of race. In nearly three-quarters of the cases, one or two members of the family have had jobs in the last year.
SNAP awards increase during economic downturns, which acts as an economic stimulus, according to the USDA. It estimates that every dollar spent in SNAP benefits generates $1.80 in economic benefits.
To qualify for SNAP, which in Connecticut is administered by the USDA and the state Department of Social Services, households must meet more than just income requirements. SNAP clients, for example, must register for work and cannot quit a job or request a reduction in work hours. They also must accept a job if offered, and participate in employment and training programs assigned by the state, according to the USDA.
Castro said she would love to work, but can’t imagine how she could do that right now. A divorced mother of five, her children need her at home right now. Two of her children have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which means that she sometimes gets a call from the school nurse to pick up one of them. She has to find a ride or take a bus to get there. If children have difficulty even with trained teachers in school, she reasons, how would they fare with a babysitter? And what kind of a job could she get that would pay for a babysitter for her brood, or work around her children’s schedules? Still, she regularly goes to the Connecticut Works employment center and submits the paperwork needed to help her find a job.
“With the food stamps, me and my kids can survive,” Castro said. “I wish I could have a job and provide for my kids, but so far, who is providing for me and my family is the state.”
Four of her five children have anemia, she said, which makes it particularly important that she provide nutritious food. She reads the nutrition labels on food packages to learn what products are high in iron. Because her mother is diabetic, and she developed diabetes during a pregnancy, she is also very careful about how much sugar she and her family eats.
She doesn’t have a car, and the C-Town market on Wethersfield Avenue is about a 20 minute walk from her house, but she is able to shop there because C-Town, like other markets in the area, will give customers a ride home if they buy enough groceries. She is also able to use her SNAP benefits at more distant stores – like Price Rite, Stop and Shop and the Family Dollar store – when she is able to get a ride. Corner convenience stores don’t have much healthy food, she said, and they are so expensive that her SNAP benefits would not last the month.
“I do whatever I have to do to have food for my kids,” she said.
Determining eligibility for SNAP benefits requires documenting income, resources, expenses, disabilities and residency, among other things. Recipients must take part in periodic reviews in order to maintain their benefits. The process can be daunting, but both recipients and exerts agree that it has improved.
Seven years ago, when Holandes first applied for SNAP benefits, “Wow, that was a hard process, let me tell you,” she said. “I went to DSS and waited for eight hours there for an application to get through. It was horrible applying for SNAP.”
The last time she went, the process was much smoother, she said, and a DSS social worker took time to congratulate her on how much she had accomplished, and to encourage her to go further.
The state’s performance in helping low-income residents secure supplemental food benefits has improved dramatically in the last six years. The application process is streamlined and more help is available, especially in Hartford, where the need is profound.
In 2011, USDA said Connecticut ranked among the worst in the nation in terms of on-time processing of food stamp applications, and wrongly denying eligible applicants. An evaluation of the 2015 Application Processing Timeliness by the USDA, showed Connecticut now processes applications on time 94.35 percent of the time, ranking the state 14th highest in the nation.
“The process is not quite as arduous as you think,” said Ferris. “That is what they are trying to push, that it isn’t going to take years.”
Individuals can apply for SNAP by completing a state application form online. Or they can mail, fax, or drop off a completed application at a local office of the state Department of Social Services, according to the DSS.
Numerous agencies also help people apply. End Hunger Connecticut! raises awareness about hunger in the state, advocates for change, and promotes access to good nutrition through federal nutrition assistance programs. It operates a SNAP Call Center, where employees assist with applications over the phone, Sherry Suber, SNAP Program Manager at EHC!, said.
“We pre-screen them for eligibility,” Suber said. “If they are eligible right then, we will do an application.”
This pre-screening process takes about 10 minutes, Suber said. Once an application is submitted, it takes between seven to 30 days for a final approval.
If the household is experiencing an emergency, meaning that their expenses exceed their income and they have less than $50 on hand, their application should be approved within seven days, Suber said.
The SNAP Call Center, which can be reached at 866-974-SNAP (7627), assists clients in maintaining benefits. It has a bilingual English-Spanish staff to help bridge language barriers, Suber said. Last year it handled more than 3,000 phone calls and submitted 1,800 applications, she said.
Many prefer the telephone help because of the stigma attached to poverty.
“People like that they don’t have to look at someone and tell them that they are failing and are hungry,” Suber said.
SNAP allotments are provided on an electronic benefit transfer card (EBT), which resembles a debit or credit card.
“The EBT card was designed to help ease the stigma of SNAP, because it looks like and acts like a debit card,” Suber said.
SNAP clients are advised to check the card’s balance by phone before shopping, Suber said. They must also be aware of what they can buy with their SNAP benefits.
For example, they can purchase breads and cereals, fruits and vegetables, meats, fish, poultry, dairy products, and seeds and plants that produce food for the household to eat. Also, soft drinks, candy, cookies, snack crackers, and ice cream can all be purchased, according to the USDA.
SNAP clients may not buy hot prepared foods with their EBT cards. This means that buying something as basic as a roasted chicken is not allowed even though that would be very helpful for working families who sometimes juggle multiple jobs and don’t have the time to prepare a meal, according to Ferris.
In Connecticut, SNAP clients also can use their EBT cards at some farm markets, but for many clients that isn’t really an option. Markets may operate for just a few daytime hours each week at inconvenient locations. The produce may be more expensive than at a grocery store, so clients prefer a store that will allow them to stretch their food dollars more effectively, Suber said.
In a city-wide effort to encourage SNAP clients to eat more fresh fruits and vegetable, several promotions now encourage SNAP clients to use their EBT card at farm markets. One is called double bucks, a program that allows clients to double their SNAP buying power if they use their EBT card at a farm market, Suber said. For example, if a client purchases $10 of produce at a farm market, they will receive another $10 on their EBT card, doubling their buying power.
Another incentive program, SNAP UP!, provides $5 coupons for fruits and vegetables to SNAP clients who buy other fruits or vegetables as part of their order. The program was started on a trial basis in 2016 by Hartford Food System, Wholesome Wave and the UConn Center for Public Health Policy, and has just received funds for another year. The C-Town neighborhood market at 165 Wethersfield Ave., has been particularly successful in encouraging customers to use the coupons and to try new fruits and vegetables.
“That has helped the customer’s knowledge of all the fruits and vegetables that we provide,” Jeffrey Perez, general manager of market, said. “It’s a small effect, but it’s taking away from the junk food.”
One week in February 2016, there were 982 SNAP customers at the Wethersfield Avenue C-Town who received $5 coupons for fruits and vegetables through this program, according to Hartford Food System.
“The $5 coupon is very helpful. I can buy fruits and vegetables with that,” Castro said.
Stretching food dollars is important for SNAP recipients.
“Food is expensive,” Ferris said. “Food stamps are vital, but the allotment is not enough to feed a family healthy.”
Even applicants who don’t qualify for SNAP because their incomes are slightly over the limit, still need help getting food, Suber said. EHC! directs these families to other programs, including food pantries.
“The reason that food banks are still needed is because people that still need SNAP are not eligible,” Ferris said.
Michelle Kalupski is a 2017 University of Connecticut graduate with majors in communication and journalism.
Karla Santos is a 2017 journalism graduate of the University of Connecticut.
“I do whatever I have to do to have food
for my kids,”
– Magaly Castro