“It’s the number one thing for them, they need healthy food to grow.”

Nusaibah Shatta, a mother of three, joined dozens of her neighbors in Hamden at a local elementary school on a rainy Friday night in April. Inside the gymnasium, United Way started a conversation about a difficult issue, one that academics have labeled “food insecurity.” What we’re really talking about is hunger. And hunger is
real, right here in our own region, in communities that you might not expect—like Hamden.

United Way and leaders at Hamden Public Schools organized the first Community Dinner focused on ending hunger, and residents were able to get candid over a plate of food. Questions prompted discussion about the biggest challenges accessing affordable and healthy food, what resources are needed to solve these issues,
and what we need to do now.

“These are issues that have been on our doorstep, but it wasn’t really until United Way got involved that we brought the right people to the table who are networked in this work and understand this at a much higher level
than we ever would on our own,” said Jody Goeler, Superintendent of Hamden Schools.

Geoler credits United Way with bringing a wide range of stakeholders together including food providers,
community leaders, elected officials, as well as people who would use the services. The top three challenges identified at the first Community Dinner were: lack of money, high cost of food, and transportation.

Our end goal: identify and end hunger in every Hamden neighborhood and, in turn, close the opportunity gap that it creates in children and adults. Because a hungry student can’t focus in the classroom, and a parent stressed about how they will put dinner on the table won’t be as productive at work. We believe no one should go hungry.

Despite the official end of the recession, hunger continues to grow in greater New Haven. Increasingly, it’s families with children and the working poor who are going hungry. In Hamden, about 1 in 7 residents do not have access to affordable, nutritious food. When you consider the whole state of Connecticut, that number is 1 in 8 adults (CT Food Bank).

Making matters worse, 39% of Hamden families who are low income do not qualify for SNAP (food stamps). Local food pantries and meal programs help those who don’t qualify for food stamps and other government assistance programs, but these fixes alone won’t end hunger. Thousands still go without food.

So, that’s why we are starting here in Hamden. Because too many residents go without, and this town is ready for change. Using what we’ve learned at the first Community Dinner, as well as surveys we collected from over 60 school personnel and 200 parents, we know this is not a new issue.

Nearly half of students in Hamden schools receive free or reduced lunch. And 60% of teachers and school leaders surveyed say they keep food in their classrooms or offices to feed hungry children. We know that families are forced to make difficult choices when they are not financially stable. When we asked parents what they could do if they didn’t have to spend as much on food for their families, 40% would be able to save for emergencies and 71% would catch up on bills, like rent or mortgage.

In collaboration with the schools, we’ve expanded summer meal service in Hamden. We secured additional mobile food pantry locations in Hamden that will connect families to groceries, including a location in southern Hamden staffed by United Way volunteers that will be available year-round, not just during summer months. In addition, we helped set up backpack programs in two schools so students have nutritious food over the weekend. This is just the beginning of the on-the-ground work already taking shape.

We will continue to engage and listen to residents to gain insight through more community conversations. From there we will compile a comprehensive data report to take to policy-makers and develop long-term solutions. We know those deeper solutions to address financial stability for families won’t be found overnight.

Ending hunger will take more than food. For long-term sustainability we need to combat all of the social issues
that contribute to the problem in the first place, and coordinate and leverage resources more effectively. It’s difficult but important work that can make a lasting impact. And, as we learn more about what works in Hamden, we can replicate those solutions in other communities where we know hunger also persists.

“We have a long way to go, we’re all on the same train, and we’re going to stay on the train until we get to the
destination,” said Superintendent Goeler.

For Nusaibah, this intentional mix of preparation and tangible progress gives her hope. For her, optimism started with a seat at the table.

“I think it’s so important. That’s why I came. I hope we find a solution for this problem.”

Ending hunger is a big goal, but we know that people can only live their best lives if they are fed.

“We have a long way to go, we’re all on the same train, and we’re going to stay on the train until we get to the destination."