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Windham Hospital Efforts Address Food Insecurity

August 31, 2023

Food insecurity is deeply connected to physical and emotional health – people without access to good food are at higher risk of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and other health concerns.

Understanding this, says Joseph Zuzel, director of community health for Hartford HealthCare’s East Region, makes Windham Hospital’s support of the Covenant Soup Kitchen/Food Pantry in Willimantic even more important for overall community health.

Last year, Covenant served more than 7,000, but halfway through 2023, requests were rising significantly and shelves were close to empty.

“Supplies in these pantries wax and wane,” Zuzel says. “It’s important we do what we can to support them.”

The ripple effect

The hospital’s Community Health Needs Assessment, Zuzel explains, shows food insecurity in eastern Connecticut, especially among children, is rising. The 2022 survey listed “access to healthy affordable food” among the health priorities in Windham County, where 15% of residents, and 20% of children, are considered “food insecure.”

Windham leadership in June presented Covenant with almost $5,708 in pledged funds for completed employee engagement surveys. In addition, the one-time donation set in motion a project coordinated by Michael J. Davis, senior director for operations, that yielded a windfall for Covenant’s sister program, the Community Food Pantry Cooperative (CFPC). Davis launched the project after seeing photos from Debbie Scott from the hospital’s food and nutrition team of almost bare shelves at the food pantry.

“When we presented the check, they were all so thankful. At that time, we talked about what else we could do, how we could develop more connections,” Davis says.

CFPC stocks non-perishable food items, baby food, formula, baked goods, fresh produce, meat, dairy products and eggs. Each person can shop for enough food to feed each member of their family 10 meals, says Anya Walikonis, Covenant’s manager of community programs and services. She estimates that more than a third of those benefitting from the food pantry are children. One recent day, 53 families picked up food.

Most of the pantry’s offerings come from CT Food Share, which charges. Covenant spends about $2,500 a week stocking its shelves, with other foods coming as donations from grocery stores.

To help, Windham colleagues collected several hundred pounds of various non-perishable food items and cash in a one-month drive. Such donations “are extremely important,” Walikonis says. “Even if they only cover the pantry for one day, that saves us hundreds of dollars. Even small donations can make a huge difference.”

Giving, Davis stresses, is in Windham Hospital’s DNA.

“Since 1933, this hospital has been the hub of the community,” he says. “You’ve either been born here, you’ve been treated here or you work here. We have an organically tight relationship with the community and, as part of Hartford HealthCare, we are reaching out more than ever to make community connections happen. This is natural.”