Food insecurity drives up Middlesex Community College’s Magic Food Bus use by 60 percent
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MIDDLETOWN — A mobile food pantry operating for the past four years on the Middlesex Community College campus may well be the only one for students in the state — and perhaps the nation.
So said coordinator Trenton Wright of the Magic Food Bus, a former school vehicle converted into an in-and-out shop for those who need to supplement their groceries or state assistance with nonperishable foodstuff. Its use has ballooned 60 percent since 2015.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I believe I’d be doing what I’m doing now. I had no idea the need was this dramatic. Six, seven years ago: not even on my radar screen,” said Wright, also the college’s coordinator of institutional advancement.
Food insecurity, including among college students, has grabbed the attention of lawmakers. U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy and U.S. Rep. Johanna Hayes, both D-Conn., have introduced federal legislation regarding the issue and regulations related to SNAP benefits.
The mobile pantry service greatly helps mother Yahaira Martinez, a part-time educational assistant at MxCC, when she’s between paychecks and during the summer, when her children are home.
Each user can choose up to 22 items twice a month.
“I know it is only 22 items, but if chosen wisely, the food lasts, and it helps add nutrition to our meals. The pantry allows my family and I to have another week or two of nutritional and healthy items, which brings a feeling of accomplishment to a working mother of two children, and one on the way, to know that her children are being well nourished at no cost,” she said.
The bus also helps Martinez save gas and the time and trouble of going to the market, she said.
“I can get canned vegetables, organic foods, organic beverages, and nutritional items, such as peanut butter, beans, herbal teas, cereal bars, granola bars, cereal boxes,” she explained.
“The correlation between those who are food insecure and homeless — or about to be homeless — or sleeping in a shelter or at a friend’s house, it’s linked. You’re also helping a little bit of a homeless issue if you can stabilize some of their food needs,” Wright said.
In all, 13.9 percent of Connecticut residents are food insecure and 6 percent are “very food insecure” — a slight increase from 11.9 percent and 4.7 percent, respectively, in 2009 to 2011, according to End Hunger Connecticut.
“Poor nutrition can increase the risk of developing health problems, including diabetes and hypertension. Food insecurity also exacerbates the complex challenges of managing a chronic disease,” according to the Feeding America domestic hunger-relief organization.
This year, student traffic at the pantry is up 68 percent over 2017-18. The bus served 1,525 students and their families from 59 communities across Connecticut. In all, 48 percent of those came from the Middletown location, and 23 percent from Meriden’s O.H. Platt High School campus.
“Fifty-nine communities out of 169 means people are coming from quite a way to come to school here and go to the pantry. It blew me away,” Wright said.
Candace Jones, who is pursuing an associate degree in computer technology, formerly worked on the bus. Now, she uses the services to supplement her SNAP benefits, and volunteers whenever she can.
“I loved working on the Magic Food Bus. If there was no one in there, we could do our homework, which was convenient. Mr. Wright wants us to get a good education while you’re working there,” Jones said.
If not for the pantry, she would have to ask her parents to help her out with food, which isn’t ideal.
“The people who work at the pantry are lenient,” Martinez said. “For example, a pack of cups of soup comes with eight boxes, and would originally be considered eight items, but the person in charge of the pantry allows me to count the box of eight items as one item. This helps me plenty.”
The college even has a veterans memorial garden, located on 6,000 square feet of land at the site of the college’s former day care playground. The grounds were unused for eight years. Now, the land is verdant, and beginning to yield tomatoes.
“I don’t know of any college food pantry that also produces their own food on campus,” Wright said. Students who are also veterans helped its construction.
Wright just doubled the yield by planting six more beds. He also came up with the idea to sell signage along the fencing, where people can purchase spaces to thank a veteran. Some honor those who earned a Purple Heart and others who fought in the Battle of the Bulge during WWII, he said.
Half of the funds raised go to the pantry and the remainder to the Veterans-in-OASIS-Center on campus.
Wright estimates he spends close to 50 percent of his time on the project.
He recently turned to the Connecticut Food Bank, where he can purchase food at 14 cents a pound, to supplement donations, which are collected in big blue bins throughout MxCC.
“These people at the college have been really great. But I’m growing so fast, it’s tough to keep up with demand,” he said.
“We were not quite prepared for the growth and the numbers that I show being served. I didn’t think it was that big of an issue, but now that it’s this big, I don’t know when this thing is going to stop,” Wright said. “I’m growing at 60 percent — that’s hard for anybody to grow at 60 percent.”
The college also holds food drives at local supermarkets, and businesses such as Liberty Bank do the same with the food bus as the beneficiary.
“Between all those little pockets, we’re able to piece this thing together,” Wright said.
Wright has set up a unique service for night students at Platt High School in Meriden, who can fill out a form to get what they need the next evening.
“We give you the selections, and you check off what you want. The next day, we bring a bag to Platt in the evening and there’s your order. You can’t have the bus, but virtually pick anything you need,” Wright said.
The average age of students at MxCC is 26.
“The ones who are a little bit older, pregnant, married, they’re having trouble paying their books, tuition, everything else. This is another thing that’s on the plate.
“We’re just trying to take a little bit off the plate to let them focus on what they really should be doing here, not worrying about ‘Where’s my meal coming from?’ ” Wright said.
For information, visit mxcc.edu/magic-food-bus.