WEST HAVEN — The annual food drive will look different this year because of the pandemic,

But West Haven Emergency Assistance Task Force Executive Director Rose Majestic is thrilled it’s taking place because the need for food is higher than ever, both in the city and throughout the state.

WHEAT is seeing three times as many households coming for food, Majestic said.

Normally they serve 30-40 households a day and now it’s up to between 90-125.

“This isn’t an emergency situation anymore, this is a crisis,” Majestic said. “I think it’s my generation’s depression.”

Majestic said a variety of factors and dynamics caused by the pandemic have made it a tough year: schools are unable to hold food drives because of COVID-19 protocols, many businesses are closed, clients of businesses don’t have as much to share, many have lost jobs, grandparents watching grandchildren for distance learning need help feeding them, and groups worried about going out during the pandemic have now emerged to ask for food, including seniors and veterans.

WHEAT’s food pantry is open Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 2 to 4:30 p.m.

Paul Shipman, spokesman for Connecticut Food Bank, said programs in the organization’s six-county service area reported a sharp increase in visits to their sites beginning in March, when job losses began and the numbers have remained high.

“Without additional financial assistance coming from the federal government, many families continue to seek help with food needs,” he said.

Shipman shared these statistics:

• Feeding America projects hunger will rise by 44 percent in Connecticut Food Bank’s six-county service area to 400,000 people in need in 2020 because of the impact of the coronavirus. That means that 1 in 7 people, including 1 in 4 children, will face food insecurity during the year.

• In New Haven County, overall food insecurity will rise 38 percent from more than 104,000 people to more than 144,000 people. Child food insecurity in New Haven County will rise by 50 percent from 28,500 to nearly 43,000 children.

• In Fairfield County, overall food insecurity will rise 47 percent, from 93,000 to more than 137,000 people, including a projected rise in child food insecurity from 27,000 children to nearly 44,500 children, a jump of 65 percent.

• In Litchfield County, overall food insecurity will increase by 50 percent, from 18,000 people to nearly 27,000 people, including a rise in child food insecurity of 63 percent, from more than 28,500 children to nearly 43,000 children.

Local food collections such as “Canned Goods for Hot Cocoa,” make a real difference in meeting needs, Shipman said.

“Canned Goods for Hot Cocoa,” was founded by resident Donna Rzasa in a grassroots kind of way in 2012 — her in front of her house with tables and hot cocoa to serve. In the last couple of years it has been operated by West Elks Club, of which she is an enthusiastic member, serving this year in the top spot of exalted ruler.

A longtime fan of WHEAT, Rzasa was home with a fractured foot in the summer of 2012 and decided to hold an iced tea/lemonade stand outside her house, seeking food donations in return.

It was successful, so in the winter she held the model, but changed the “thank you,” to hot cocoa. It was a hit — she collected tables of food and at the same time included high school students as volunteers to get them in touch with the cause. She continued in front of the house through 2017 when the friend who helped her developed health challenges.

In 2018 she brought the program to the Elks, since they’re about helping in the community.

This year the drive will be held Nov. 1 in front of the Elk’s Club, 265 Main St., and because of COVID-19 restrictions, those who donate this year will get a packet of hot chocolate rather than a hot cup of the treat. The drive is from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

“It’s really about knowing when you’re sitting down having dinner, other people have a meal in front of them,” she said. “My meal feels much better knowing there’s food on other people’s tables.”

Shipman said events like “Canned Goods for Hot Cocoa” make a real difference.

“Local efforts like this by the West Haven Elks will help WHEAT continue meeting needs of people in the area,” Shipman said. “Through generous donations, we have been able to keep food moving to agencies like WHEAT in our network, but local contributions are a valuable way to help local pantries meet additional demand.”

Rzasa said the drive is needed more than ever because so many people are out of work due to COVID-19 and there is a possibility of a resurgence. They will also take monetary donations. Checks should be written to WHEAT.

“Let’s hope and pray in 2021 there’s no such thing as COVID,” she said.

WHEAT’s top needs now are peanut butter, canned corn, canned green beans and canned mixed vegetables, according to their Facebook page.

To contact WHEAT, email wheatcharity@sbcglobal.net or visit their new website at www.wheatpantry.org.

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