By MARK TODD - firstname.lastname@example.org
CONNEAUT — When hundreds of people regularly troop to the Conneaut Human Resources Center each month to receive free food, officials at the agency have mixed feelings.
On one hand, the CHRC staff is happy because the Produce to the People program is a success, but also bemoan the fact that so many people need outside help to put food on their tables. Recipients, meanwhile, are just happy someone cares.
“People are very thankful and receptive,” said Renea Roach, director of the city’s Food Pantry and a coordinator of the Produce to the People program.
Each month, sometimes twice a month during growing season, the CHRC is the destination of a delivery truck toting fresh produce and some dairy products obtained from the Cleveland Food Bank. Often, the truck is greeted by a line of anxious recipients that winds behind the Mill Street building.
“They start lining up around 6:30 a.m.,” said Deborah Newcomb, CHRC executive director. “We get between 600 and 700 individuals on average. It’s open to everyone. There is no income eligibility.”
This winter will mark the second anniversary of the Produce to People program in Conneaut, and is operated in addition to the Conneaut Food Pantry’s other distribution work, Roach said. Country Neighbor in Orwell is the only other county agency that participates in Produce to the People, she said.
On Produce day, organizers depend on several volunteers to unload the food, set up and staff pickup stations, handle registration and help recipients through the process, Newcomb said. Helpers include students enrolled in the Conneaut Digital Academy who lend a hand to earn community service credit.
“We have a tremendous group of volunteers,” Newcomb said.
The truck arrives at 9 a.m., and by 10 a.m. the produce is starting to head out the door. The distribution ends at noon. The selection, meanwhile, always varies, Newcomb said.
“We never know what they are bringing until (the truck) arrives,” she said. “It depends on what’s available.”
Sometimes the CHRC prepares hand-outs with cooking instructions and tips for some of the more obscure vegetables, Newcomb said.
Right now, the majority of recipients are families, but senior citizens are showing up in larger numbers, too, Newcomb said. “We’re seeing more clients across the board,” she said.
Lately, the CHRC has become a haven for the hungry. In addition to the Produce and Food Pantry programs, the center recently became the site for a soup kitchen operated by St. Mary/St. Frances Cabrini parish. The last soup kitchen attracted 70 people, Newcomb said.
Roach, who has coordinated many food-related programs for Conneaut since 2005, says hers is a “bittersweet job” that enjoys plenty of support from individuals and local organizations.
“We have a great community,” she said. “They still pitch in.”