The ongoing issue of food insecurity has been in the back of Angela Chastain’s mind her whole life. Her mother, Camella, grew up in extreme poverty and would talk to her daughter about not having food. So when Angela, who serves on the Board of Education in her New Milford, Conn. community, noticed the schools’ free and reduced lunch numbers increasing, she wanted to do something to help.
In 2018, Angela founded Camella’s Cupboard, a nonprofit organization that provides food to area children in need. The organization provides an in-school food pantry, as well as a summer lunch program and food bags for weekends and school breaks, in order to fill in the gaps when students aren’t receiving free or reduced lunches from their school. Since schools closed due to Covid-19, Camella’s Cupboard has ramped up services in order to give students seven breakfasts, lunches and snacks each week. They are also providing food products to families in need. In the past two years, Camella’s Cupboard has provided over 70,000 meals.
Describe your volunteer role with Camella’s Cupboard.
We provide food to children in need in the greater New Milford area, so New Milford and the surrounding towns. We stared as a summer lunch program to fill in the gap between the free and reduced lunch during the school year and not having that availability in the summer. My role is founder and I now serve as the executive director.
When did you start this organization and what inspired you to do so?
It was founded in April 2018. I’m also on the Board of Education in my town, so I’m very in tune with the schools, and I kept seeing our free and reduced lunch numbers going up. When I first got involved, it was around 10 percent. We now are a little bit over 40 percent. I kept seeing it continue to grow and I had tried a couple times unsuccessfully to start a backpack program in the school. The schools at that time were not equipped to deal with that logistically, so I thought, what can I do instead? That’s how this grew and how it started, with the summer lunch program. I figured we could fill that gap during the summer for families. We have since added the weekend backpack program, and of course, during Covid-19 we have really ramped up and served families even more than we typically do.
The reason it started was my mother grew up extremely poor, and I always remember her talking about that and not having food and things like that. That was always in the back of my mind. When we moved here and I kept seeing the numbers grow of free and reduced lunch, that really spoke to me and that’s something I was really passionate about doing. Actually, Camella’s Cupboard is named for my mother.
How have your operations changed since Covid-19 began?
Typically during the school year, we just serve on the weekends to provide food for the students on the weekend, and then we also have an in-school food pantry. When Covid-19 hit, of course everything was up in the air. The schools currently were not serving since we were out of school, and we weren’t sure when we were going to be back in school, so we started serving that first Friday the students were out. We gave the students seven breakfasts, seven lunches, and snacks to get them through the week. Our numbers exploded. We have been serving about 125, and we now serve over 400 a week. The need just grew exponentially. We have partnered with some local agencies in town and are now serving, in addition to food for the children, also some family components. Our families get fresh dairy, they get eggs, they get some meat, and they get lots of fresh produce every week, in addition to the food bank for the children.
Do you have any long term goals for how you would like to see the organization grow?
We have actually been approached by other towns to move into the surrounding towns that have a similar need to ours. The real key to our program is we don’t meet the threshold for reimbursement for free and reduced lunch during the summer, so our schools don’t do a summer lunch program. Some of the surrounding towns here are the same. They’re in the 40 percent, and you need to reach that 50 percent mark to get that reimbursement. We have some areas that want us to expand. That is an option.
One thing I definitely want to see us grow into is a delivery system. We do delivery to about 60 students now through the use of volunteers, but we really would like — once we’ve returned to a traditional lunch program where we’re serving everyday — to get an ice cream truck or something like that we can fix up and take around to different neighborhoods where we know students are but they’re not able to access us, because it is [currently] a pickup program. We would like to be able to expand and get to more students who we know are home alone, or parents don’t drive or something like that.
Another thing we would like to do, and we started to do this during Covid, is expand to other vulnerable populations, be it seniors or disabled or homebound folks who we know are out there and are not quite able to make ends meet and need some assistance. We have had some additional produce and things like that this summer that we’ve offered to the seniors in town, and that has been well received. I will say I was really surprised by the need there as well, so that is an area we’ve talked about expanding or even changing our mission. Our mission now is very child-focused, but changing that to vulnerable populations so we can encompass more of those folks.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
I learn something new everyday, be it something related to the business or the nonprofit or the growth of it or relationship building, but I think the thing that I really have overwhelmingly learned again and again is just how gracious our town has been, and how generous our town has been. Whenever we’ve put out a call for any need, we’ve gotten it, whether it be a delivery driver or an empty fridge. We needed a freezer awhile back, and I put up a Facebook post, and within an hour I had a freezer. They’re just so willing to support us and have continued to support us. That first summer, we had overwhelming generosity, and I thought ‘This will be a one-time thing, next year we won’t get that,’ but that hasn’t been the case. The same thing when Covid hit — everybody knew we were ramping up, and the donations poured in and have continued to stay strong. I’m on a nonprofit executive director Facebook page, and a lot of the other nonprofits, their donations and volunteers have really fallen off. Thankfully we have not experienced that at all. We’re almost to the point of having to turn volunteers away, because we have so many people interested in helping, and donations. Every single day, we have somebody dropping something off or calling to see how they can help or sending a check. The generosity of this town has just been overwhelming.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
I think the one thing I really say to a lot of people is hunger is well-hidden, and a lot of people don’t realize how many children and families are hungry. It’s something you can easily hide and it effects so much of a child’s life. They don’t do as well in school. They have an increased risk of childhood obesity. So many different factors impact a child when they’re hungry. It doesn’t take more than just a few dollars or a few extra things purchased at the grocery store to make an impact, so I would encourage anybody who is reading this to donate to their local food pantry or a backpack organization or some other group that specifically especially feeds children.
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