BRIDGEPORT—Reducing hunger and providing nutrition to those in need is central to Catholic Charities’ mission. As the largest social service agency in the diocese, their soup kitchens serve those most in need, as Fairfield County ranks first nationally in income inequality when compared to the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas and where the cost of living is high.
Two of the agency’s largest initiatives are The Thomas Merton Center in Bridgeport and New Covenant Center in Stamford. The soup kitchen at the Thomas Merton Center offers breakfast, lunch and a day shelter to about 300 people Monday through Saturday. Its Eat Smart Marketplace Food Pantry serves over 600 families from inner-city Bridgeport monthly. New Covenant Center operates the only soup kitchen in Stamford, open every day of the year and the city’s largest food pantry. The soup kitchen serves breakfast, lunch and dinner to approximately 350 daily. The food pantry serves over 525 households monthly. Last year, New Covenant Center served 3,600 unduplicated individuals and over 600,000 meals. There is an urgent need for these programs.
Recently, both programs were beneficiaries of a grant through Bank of America to introduce a food education initiative at their sites—the Food Insecurity Education Program. “As the relationships among diet, health and disease prevention have become clearer, nutrition education and the promotion of healthy eating behaviors and lifestyles continue to receive increased attention,” says Bill Colson, operations manager at the Thomas Merton Center. New Covenant Center Executive Director John Gutman states, “Many factors influence behavior and successful nutrition education uses a systematic approach and strategies that include a variety of activities to help make behavior changes. Effective nutrition education and promotion includes multiple components such as skill-building and integrated initiatives to build personal and community support. It helps consumers select and consume healthy and enjoyable foods by improving awareness and motivation.”
It is with this understanding that the Thomas Merton Center and New Covenant Center initiated the Food Insecurity Education Program (FIEP) to meet the nutritional awareness needs of their respective communities. This program focuses primarily on the school-age population and seeks guidance and development from local dieticians or nutritionists based out of local colleges such as Sacred Heart University, Fairfield U or the University of Bridgeport, with other options including professionals from the local public school systems, or local chefs or culinary teachers/students. The programs can also access additional partners to including secure food providers such as CT Food Bank, Food Rescue, Trader Joe’s, Reservoir Community Farm, Food Bank of Lower Fairfield County and Fairgate Farm. In addition to young families of both the Thomas Merton Center and New Covenant Center, the target audience is drawn from local parishes, schools and community youth groups, as well as students currently involved in volunteer opportunities at each site. Programming is based on monthly workshops or clinics designed to educate using both hands-on, and presentational, formats involving such topics as: learning the language of the kitchen, touring a food provider facility, preparing healthy and nutritious meals, and planning, planting and harvesting a working outdoor garden.
Each program worked separately at their individual sites during the grant cycle with their own cohort groups following the Food Insecurity Education Program. They prepared sustainable gardens, learned about healthy and nutritious meals, worked in the gardens and harvested vegetables. The groups ended the grant cycle preparing a healthy and nutritious dish from the vegetables the harvested and shared the meal during a celebration. Catholic Charities is looking forward to continuing its relationship with Bank of America and growing this program at both the Thomas Merton Center and New Covenant Center.
Written by Amy Zajac as seen on the Fairfield County Catholic website.