Walk into Freshplace, housed in what once was an old dairy in Hartford's North End, and Denise Sherrod is picking out sweet potatoes to take home for pies. The tomatoes she'll make into a sandwich. Sherrod is feeding four, and her family's size dictates how much food she can take on her twice-monthly visits.
Meanwhile, in a small office by the door, Jon Mitchell, project manager, sits with another Freshplace client and goes over paperwork. Does the man need a job? Job training? Housing? Would a social worker help?
The program is the product of five years of planning in an unusual collaboration among three heavy-hitting area nonprofits operating under the watchful eye of University of Connecticut researchers. Members can get food here, take cooking classes, enroll in job training and get plugged into social services that might help move them up the ladder, in an effort to move clients into greater self-sufficiency and less reliance on welfare benefits.
And it's all recorded by UConn researchers, with an eye toward replicating the program elsewhere.
If we want to win the war on poverty, we must do things differently. Struggling families need something more comprehensive than a bag of groceries, such as this collaboration between Junior League of Hartford, Foodshare, and Chrysalis Center. Such programs might be the wave of the future in fighting poverty in the U.S., specifically because it is not a handout, says Mitchell.
Freshplace's 100 families -- 312 people -- are part of an 18-month study run by Katie S. Martin, assistant professor in residence at UConn's Department of Allied Health Sciences. From a recent update on the organization's progress, 42 percent of the study's participants go to soup kitchens and 63 percent go to food pantries at least once a week. Sixty-eight percent don't have jobs; 11 percent are retired.
Although data are preliminary -- the program began just last September -- Martin calls the findings "promising." Families report a decrease in food insecurity -- or the concern there'll be enough food in the house. Just 15 percent of members reported food insecurity after nearly a year's participation, compared to 43 percent in the comparison group. Members also report an appreciation for learning how to prepare unfamiliar food. Members' consumption of fruits and vegetables has increased, as well, says Martin.
"To my knowledge, Freshplace is the first food-pantry program in the country that's being rigorously evaluated," where recipients answer survey questions, says Martin. "By that I mean we're not just collecting numbers, but we're comparing people who come to Freshplace with a control group."
Participants were recruited from local food pantries and then chosen randomly to be in the study or the control group. Freshplace members sign up for a plan that includes access to multiple social services. The other study participants receive their food from more traditional programs, which are mostly limited to food distribution.
"We're comparing apples to apples," Martin says. "And the word on the street is that this is a good program."
The hope is that the collaborative will teach planners how to better address the symptoms of poverty in a way that can be replicated anywhere, says Martin. "That's why I do this work. I don't understand the social injustice. If we can get clients to come in and say, 'I want to work on job skills,' and do their part, it's more than just the food piece. People need jobs that will sustain their families."
The program offers what Maryellen M. Shuckerow, development director at Chrysalis Center, a Hartford-based private, nonprofit health care agency, calls "full circle help."
"How do you get this person into a stable environment?" says Shuckerow. "We have to take care of the underlying pieces."
Freshplace is breaking new ground, too, with its collaboration. Historically, each aid organization, including Hartford's 75 food pantries, operates with its own budget, board and area of concern. But while the economy continues to struggle, charities and nonprofits scramble for donations while they're being asked to serve more people. Joining forces may be the answer to reduced coffers, says Shuckerow.
The three organizations were involved from the beginning to plan, find funding, and offer staff, volunteer and paid, to keep the program going.
"We sat a long time at a table where this was just a dream," says Wendy Avery, Junior League president.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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