On the Food Pantry

Amy and I attended a meeting this morning at the Hartford Licenses and Inspections office. The meeting was about a food pantry being run at a church located at 870 Prospect Avenue in Hartford near Elizabeth Park. There was/is concern from some residents within the West End neighborhood that the food pantry shouldn’t be in that particular location.

870 Prospect, Hartford

The meeting was moderated by representatives of various City departments, including Health, Licenses & Inspections and Zoning. They started by noting that the goal was to be a listening session, and that they would follow their normal processes in coming to any official decisions.

Zoning reported that the building was approved to be a church (in an R-8 zone) in 1948. Two years later, in 1950, the church also received zoning approval for the pastor to live on site. Since the building has been used as a church continuously since then, it can continue to house a church until someone stops using it as a church.

Health reported that the current owners, the Grace Seventh Day Adventists Church, secured the necessary permits to operate the building’s kitchen when they purchased the building in 2006.

At issue is a license for operating a food pantry on site, which is currently a partnership with FoodShare. Health reported that it is FoodShare’s responsibility to secure the appropriate license. They do not currently have the proper license and the City has pushed the Church and FoodShare to get it.

A zoning question has also been raised as to whether a food pantry is a legal “accessory use” to a church. Basically, the question is whether the food pantry is an inherent part of what it means to be a “church” or if a food pantry is a separate and distinct activity that needs to be independently approved.

The Church has been operating a food pantry on site since they arrived in 2006. Initially it was something they did internally, but by 2011 it had grown to the point that they needed the additional support of FoodShare in order to meet the demand.

The Church’s food pantry is open on Wednesdays from 11:00am to 1:00pm.

The food pantry serves whoever shows up, and they report helping people from the West End, other Hartford neighborhoods, and other towns in Greater Hartford. Visitors arrive using a variety of transit modes. Many drive, some carpool or ride transit, and some even walk. An average of about 180 people receive food on a weekly basis.

The Church reports actively taking steps to minimize the impact of the operation on their neighbors. They ask people to not arrive before 10:00am. They work to get people through the line and on their way again as quickly as possible. They move the line to the driveway (off the sidewalk) once the food arrives via truck. They have volunteers help manage the people in the line. And they declined to register their food pantry with 211, despite FoodShare asking that they do, as they felt their operation was growing enough through word of mouth.

It is not clear where, or when, concerns about the food pantry began in the West End neighborhood.

The West End Civic Association (WECA) initially solicited comments from their membership on September 6, 2013 stating via email:

“One of the churches on Prospect is running a food pantry. If you have any comments/concerns about the pantry, please call or email me with your thoughts. The License & Inspection office is holding a meeting next Thursday morning, 9/12, at 9 am. At that time, they would like feedback from WECA on the pros/cons, impact to our neighbors. If you would like to attend the meeting next Thursday, please let me know and I can provide the details.”

WECA voted to take a formal position during their September 10, 2013 Board Meeting, subsequently distributing this statement to members via email:

“WECA supports enforcing the R-8 zoning regulations which do not allow this type of activity at this location on Prospect Avenue. We believe the pantry is a necessary and noble cause and would like to work with the church to find an alternate location that does meet zoning standards. The board discussed your feedback and also reviewed WECA’s strategic plan and used both to finalize this position.”

WECA’s President conveyed the group’s position at the meeting, emphasizing the zoning aspect as the primary concern and traffic as a secondary issue. She noted that WECA does not want to see the services provided at the church expand into things like a shelter or school, which they feel would also be inappropriate for the R-8 zone.

One member of WECA shared concerns about the food pantry. Charlie Ortiz, who is the WECA Membership Chair and lives on that block of Prospect, reported that he has received a number of calls from neighbors. One Wednesday he investigated and observed food pantry traffic impeding an ambulance and a wheelchair-bound individual unable to navigate the sidewalk. He offered to share photos. He also noted that West Hartford residents in that area called the police because of the traffic.

The Church said that they did not know that neighbors or WECA were concerned about the food pantry. They also didn’t know that the West End was in communication with the City on the issue until a TV crew approached them last night. They found out about this meeting via the media, the night before it was scheduled to be held. Nobody from WECA communicated that group’s concern to Church leadership.

The Church encouraged WECA to approach them directly, as the Church makes every effort to be good neighbors. They asked if they could join WECA.

The Church reported being open to conversation on this particular issue. They noted that the food pantry generates much less traffic than events at Elizabeth Park, and is held in the middle of the day, which avoids rush hours.

Councilperson Jennings spoke on a number of topics, noting that insufficient food supplies are a contributing factor to the City’s larger problem of violence. She encouraged WECA and the Church to work together in public, as neighbors, and across racial lines, to figure out a way to support the pantry despite any zoning hurdles that may arise. She emphasized the importance of communication, and said she would be open to approaching the City to try to secure police resources to monitor the traffic, if that would be helpful.

Church members spoke in support of the food pantry and the effort they go through to run a positive and successful operation while fulfilling their primary mission of helping the less fortunate.

Multiple citizens raised the concern that WECA’s objection to the food pantry may be racially motivated.

One attendee suggested that the Church invite WECA to come volunteer at the food pantry so that WECA membership can learn more about the operation and experience it first-hand.

At that point the meeting wound down. A network news camera was present, so there will likely be video of the meeting available in the near future.

The two main action items were for the City. The representative of the Health Department said that he would visit the site on Wednesday 9/25 to observe the food pantry in action. The zoning representative said that he would research the “accessory use” question to make a determination about whether a food pantry is part of a church. It was also apparent that WECA and the Church engage in a direct dialog on the issue.


Update – September 13, 2013

Thank you to Ms. McAdam and Mr. McGregor for providing additional information. To highlight what they wrote, Ms. McAdam reported that FoodShare is not responsible for securing the food pantry license because they are providing food and technical assistance, and not actually operating the food pantry. And Mr. McGregor reported that the Church has secured a license from the Health Department to operate as a food pantry. Both shared additional thoughts as well, which can be seen in their entirety below.

20 thoughts on “On the Food Pantry

  1. Thanks for sharing this info, especially the bits about how long this has been in operation and that the entity being discussed was not even notified about the meeting.

  2. I’m somewhat appalled that this situation would go this far without WECA communicating with the church; It is usually best practice to communicate directly with your neighbors about concerns. I am also not really clear where there would be a better location, within the West End neighborhood, to hold this pantry. I have walked past while the pantry is distributing food and aside from a good sized crowd I noted no issues of concern. I appreciate that neighbors may have concerns, but again feel that the “grown up” thing to do is to approach the church directly, as a neighbor, to work the issues out prior to complaining to neighborhood organizations or city departments. To my knowledge there is no history of difficult relations between the church and its neighbors.

  3. A big fat ditto to what Josh wrote. Amazed that WECA did not approach the church to discuss and concerns and work together to make sure the food pantry could continue without causing serious disruption in the neighborhood. If traffic is a concern on Prospect, where is there a better place?

    This leaves the impression that those initiating the meeting did not want to work with the church to address concerns, but just want to shut this down. I hope that’s not the case, but if so it’s sad.

  4. I’m interested in who called the meeting. I agree wholeheartedly that WECA should have dealt first directly with the church, but their email makes it sound like they were not the initiators. Who exactly had the initial complaint that prompted the meeting?

  5. Thanks for this excellent article. What bothers me is the question if a food pantry is a part of a church. I would have to say yes feeding the hungry is very much part of a churches duty. I do hope that the zoning rep. consults with other churches in the area as most of those who are heeding the message of Jesus do have so type of food program. This makes me very sad.

  6. Jane — Someone from WECA told me that L&I initiated the meeting. Someone from inside City Hall told me that the West End pushed for it.

  7. As usual the West End pushed it. This is class/racial issue. I am appalled that it has gotten this far but I guess I am not really surprised. If the church were not on Prospect Ave it would not really be a problem.. But it is so it has become an issue.

  8. I am going to be very blunt here. This is an embarrassment to our community that WECA is attempting to shut down the work of any church that is helping to feed those that are having tough times. As aptly stated in Amy’s blog, 180 people is less traffic than the hundreds that pour into Elizabeth Park for events. Grace Church is the perfect place for such an activity with so much green space around it. Would we like to have a food pantry on a congested corner on Farmington Ave?

  9. Thank you for this detailed report. To think that not only did WECA not approach the church first, they were planning on having this meeting without the church altogether. Appalled is the right word.

  10. It is absurd to deny people the right to food during hard times. If WECA was to take the same NIMBYism position on public housing they would have to evict the governor from the highest price tag pubic housing unit in the state. Thank you for speaking out Councilperson Jennings.

  11. All of us at Foodshare were surprised to hear that someone at the City Health Department thinks that it would be Foodshare’s role to secure a license for a locally operated food pantry.

    While Foodshare is aware that the City of Hartford expects food pantries to have a Class 1 food license, we are also aware that very few of the approximately 70 pantries in the city do. It seems strange that this one pantry is being singled out for not having a license.

    And in any event, Foodshare does not operate any pantries; we provide food and technical assistance to churches and other organizations that wish to operate a pantry. So, Foodshare would have no involvement in securing a license for a local pantry, that would be up to the organization that operates the pantry.

    Gloria J. McAdam
    President and CEO

  12. First I want to thanks our neighbors in the West End that have come forth to support our food pantry’s right to operate from our church on Prospect Ave. I feel churches have an responsibility to meet the needs of the community, and one of those needs are the feed those in need.

    I also want to set the record straight by saying we have secured a license from the Health Department to operate as a food pantry.

    I am disappointed that our neighbors never approached us with their concerns. I am also disappointed that there were suggestions made that we relocate our pantry to another location. What better place to operate a food pantry than from our church, where those in need of food can also seek spiritual help as they receive food for their physical needs.

    By seeking an opinion from L&I concerning zoning issues is an attempt by some to close our food pantry. The building at 870 Prospect Avenue has been a church since 1948 and should be grandfathered regardless of the present zoning.

    Through all of this I want to extend a hand to all our neighbors and invite you to come out and see first hand what we are doing here at Grace Seventh-day Adventist Church. To witness firsthand the impact it is having on people.

    To God be the Glory!

    Elder Noel F. McGregor Jr.
    Director Community Services
    Grace Seventh-day Adventist Church

  13. It became a problem only because a recent surge in poverty here and everywhere causes crowds to gather for food. I see the Foodshare truck in the United Methodist lot every week, and it’s a throng now. Three people got hit by a car there earlier this summer. Churches have to feed the poor because we refuse to do it as a community or as a city. This method is unruly and inconvenient and even dangerous, and it violates the zoning laws, but we don’t give decent people any other way to help. Zoning laws may have to relax to accommodate the brutal conditions that prevail today. Maybe residents of this rich neighborhood could benefit from a glimpse of reality every so often.

  14. Traffic & parking inconvenience for a few individuals needs to take a back seat to the greater good. Most West Enders feel humiliated that our neighborhood would put the inconvenience of a few individuals ahead of the community coming together to feed the hungry. We went through this before with the CREC school proposal. The whims of a few should not undermine the success of the neighborhood as a whole. We all would like less traffic & better parking, but these issues look petty when compared with feeding the hungry and educating our children.

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