During pandemic, Yale helped address urgent city challenge: food security

The Believe in Me Empowerment Corporation (BIMEC) on Dixwell Avenue in the Newhallville neighborhood of New Haven used its grant from the Yale Community for New Haven Fund to purchase food for several food drives it held during the early months of the pandemic.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last March, Sister Margaret Mary Kennedy knew that some of the people she works with through Fair Haven’s Springs Learning Center suddenly faced a painful question: Do I buy food for my family or pay this month’s rent?

The center, which Kennedy directs, helps adult immigrants improve their English communication skills so they can apply for citizenship and succeed in their new community. Some of these adults lost their jobs due to the pandemic but could not apply for unemployment benefits because they are undocumented.

To ensure the families would not have to go without food, Kennedy applied for a grant from the Yale Community for New Haven Fund, which was established by President Peter Salovey in March 2020 to help New Haven neighbors struggling during the pandemic.

Managed by Yale’s Office of New Haven Affairs, the fund — supported by donations from university staff members, students, and alumni and with direct and matching contributions from the university — distributed approximately $3 million to nearly 200 local nonprofit organizations that offered pandemic-related assistance to city residents. These New Haven organizations in turn were able to assist families with such basic needs as clothing, housing or shelter, personal protective equipment, childcare, computers for remote learning, mental health support, and more.

But for many of the nonprofits, the most urgent challenge facing the community was food insecurity. A 2017 “State of Hunger in New Haven” report found that 22% of city residents are food insecure, and with the increased unemployment rate in the city during the pandemic, that percentage grew. In total, over $700,000 in Yale Community for New Haven Fund grants were allocated specifically to improve access to food for local residents.

Grants were distributed to the Coordinated Food Assistance Network, a partnership between the United Way, the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen, Loaves and Fishes, and other agencies that delivered food to people who were ill, immunocompromised, or stuck in their homes during the pandemic; Keep New Haven Thriving, an effort by local restaurants to supply meals to frontline workers in hospitals and other healthcare settings; Square Meals New Haven, an initiative by local restaurants to feed some 250 homeless individuals; and other nonprofits providing meals and groceries to New Haven residents. Nearly 40 nonprofits focused directly on providing meals to local residents — via food drives, food pantries, food delivery to the homebound, the distribution of grocery store gift cards, and more — in every part in the city.

We purposefully distributed grants from the fund across different neighborhoods in the city,” said Lauren Zucker, associate vice president for New Haven Affairs and director of University Properties. “We funded organizations which in turn provided food gift cards or helped local residents pay their utility bills, for example. By connecting with the organizations that know personally the families in their communities, this grassroots approach allowed us to get resources to New Haven residents who were most in need.”

The Springs Learning Center, which is supported by the Dominican Sisters of Peace, spent more than half of its $6,000 grant on $25 grocery store gift cards, Sister Kennedy said. Those cards, she said, were distributed to about 50 local families.

The recipients were so surprised and grateful,” said Kennedy. “When they thanked me for being able to have food on their table, I told them: ‘I’m not doing this. This is possible because there are a lot of people who care about you.’ For the recipients — who sometimes feel on the fringes to begin with — knowing that people cared about them during the pandemic gave them a sense of belonging, she said.

Some of our students who received gift cards in turn helped out others in the community by giving out food baskets at a police substation on a weekly basis. There was a snowball effect in generosity during this challenging time, and the Yale grant is what got things rolling!”

Kennedy also purchased with the Yale funds Wi-Fi hotspots in Fair Haven so that her students could continue with their English language study on their computers.

Like Kennedy, David Greco, the co-founder and director of ARTE Inc., knew that some of the families his Fair Haven-based nonprofit serves would be struggling to keep food on the table during the pandemic. With ARTE’s $15,000 grant from the Yale Community for New Haven Fund, Greco distributed $50 grocery store gift cards to local families in need. Typically, ARTE Inc. provides artistic and cultural programming for local children and their families, but Greco was grateful he could go beyond the organization’s usual mission.

Yale University allowed ARTE to help so many people,” said Greco. “One of the side benefits of this grant is that it helped us build an even better relationship with our constituents.”

Men packing boxes with food
BIMEC staff members prepare for a drive-through food distribution event. BIMEC was one of numerous local organizations supported by the Yale Community Fund for New Haven that addressed food insecurity in the city during the pandemic. Over $700,000 in grants from the Yale fund were used specifically to give city residents access to food in the early months of the pandemic.
BIMEC staff members prepare for a drive-through food distribution event. BIMEC was one of numerous local organizations supported by the Yale Community Fund for New Haven that addressed food insecurity in the city during the pandemic. Over $700,000 in grants from the Yale fund were used specifically to give city residents access to food in the early months of the pandemic.

In the Dixwell/Newhallville neighborhood, grant funding supported organizations including the Believe in Me Empowerment Corporation (BIMEC), which offers programming and services to improve the lives of children, young adults, and families impacted by incarceration. Specifically, the Yale Fund helped provide quality meals at the year-round BIMEC food pantry and groceries for three drive-up food distribution events hosted by the nonprofit along with area churches.

[It] also allowed us to offer transitional housing to our clients for an extra two months who would otherwise have gone homeless during the pandemic,” said James Walker, BIMEC’s executive director, who estimates that with the support of the Yale Fund, BIMEC was able to provide meals to 800 people in the wider New Haven community.

The pandemic created major barriers for our clients,” he said. “And with that support they were able to keep going forward through a hard time.”

Other organizations in the city, including the Boys & Girls Club of New Haven in the Hill neighborhood, supported city residents by distributing debit cards that could be used to purchase food or to pay a utility bill, housing costs, or other basic needs in the early-spring days of the pandemic.

With our $20,000 we gave out 97 cards valued at $200 each to families of the Boys & Girls Club that we identified as most needing help,” said Barbara Chesler, interim director of the organization, whose mission is to provide a safe environment — such as in summer camps and after-school programs — for children to play, learn, and grow.

In the letter we sent to families with the card, we told them this was made possible through a Yale grant,” Chesler continued. “This was the first COVID-19-related grant we received, and I was incredibly grateful that Yale provided us with this funding, with the number-one priority of making sure people had food in the house.”

As the nation begins now to emerge from the pandemic, Kennedy said she feels uplifted thinking back to the earliest days of the crisis and how the community came together to help those who were hit the hardest.

The help Yale provided was a life saver for many people in our city,” she said.

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