New Milford nonprofit focuses on feeding kids in need: ‘No one should be going hungry’

Photo of Sandra Diamond Fox

NEW MILFORD — Deep in the heart of town is a food service organization that focuses on children.

Now in its fourth year, Camella’s Cupboard, which is based out of New Milford Public School’s Central Office building at 50 Main St., gives out a free food bag to each child registered with the program.

“We give each child a bag with multiple days worth of food items,” said Angela Chastain, founder of the nonprofit.

Items in the bag are geared specifically for children, and include fruit cups, waffles, juice boxes and frozen pizza — “things that a child can eat with little to no assistance. That was our goal to begin with — to feed those kids,” Chastain said.

Additionally, during the pandemic, Camella’s began to give away family boxes. These 75-pound boxes consist of bread, fresh produce such as meat, eggs and milk, and a baked good item from a local grocery store that donates their excess.

Qualification, registration

Camella’s is open to anyone, year round, who feels they need the service.

“The need is self-identified,” Chastain said. “The only requirement we have is you’re a New Milford resident.”

Residents get a referral through social services and schools, as well as counselors at New Milford Hospital.

She added, however, most of the time, people hear of Camella’s through word of mouth.

Registration is required for everyone in the program. Residents can register at any time.

Food bag pick-up is weekly behind East Street School.

“It’s a complete drive-thru service. They pull up behind the school. To remain confidential, we ask the last four digits of their phone number and the food is placed inside the trunk,” she said.

Camella’s uses about 100 volunteers a month — to pick up boxes and distribute all the food. New volunteers are always welcome.

Chastain said because the nonprofit focuses on children, many children want to volunteer to help.

“We started monthly kids and teens nights where young people volunteer their time to pack bags and other tasks,” she said. “That gives kids an opportunity to understand what we do and why we do it.”

Funding, ongoing need

Camella’s Cupboard is supported by grants such as by the United Way, Dunkin’ Donuts and No Kid Hungry.

Additionally, they receive items through the Connecticut Food Bank, anonymous foundations and individual contributions.

The service never closed during the pandemic — it served more people than ever during that time.

“Prior to the pandemic, we were serving 200 children each week,” Chastain said.

During COVID, that number peaked to about 800 children a week.

“We have leveled off since early spring, and now we are serving about 300 children each week, consistently,” Chastain said.

She said many pantries, including Camella’s, are struggling.

“The crunch is now,” she said. “People were overwhelmingly generous during COVID. Everyone assumes that now, we are doing OK. However, we are really down with our individual donations at this point.”

Camella’s Cupboard accepts individually packaged items, as well as cash donations.

The nonprofit is collecting for families for Christmas Eve — and is asking for donations of hot cocoa mix, sugar cookie mix, microwave popcorn, pancake mix and pancake syrup.

There is very little overlap with the services offered through the town’s social services department, Chastain said.

“Only about 12 percent of our people also receive Social Services,” she said. “Social Services is very income based and offers a lot more services than just food.”

She added 85 to 88 percent of those who use Camella’s services don’t qualify for any other kind of service.

“These are people who are in the middle,” Chastain said. “They make too much to get public assistance but really don’t make enough to live comfortably. They are in that middle bracket — the ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) population.”

She added Camella’s serves as a stopgap for a lot of families, “as temporary assistance while they get back on their feet, such as a loss of a job,” Chastain said. “Some families come to us for two or three weeks while others remain for much longer.”

Going forward, Camella’s Cupboard is looking to expand its reach to help families in other towns.

Camella

Camella’s Cupboard was named after Chastain’s mother Camella, who was one of seven children born in the ‘40s in rural Indiana.

“My mother grew up very poor. She went to bed hungry. She watched other kids in school eat their lunch and she had nothing to eat. So, growing up with that knowledge that there are hungry children — I wanted to help.”

She said in rural Indiana, it was very obvious who was poor, based upon the status of people’s cars and homes. However, when Chastain moved to Connecticut in 2006, she realized the signs of poverty are a lot more subtle.

“Everybody looked like they were doing just fine,” she said. “Hunger is very, very easily hidden here. You have a home and you can maintain a facade but you can come home and your fridge is completely empty and you have no food for your kids and nobody knows that.”

She added hunger affects many more people than the public may realize and even what statistics show.

“No one should be going hungry and it’s important to get that word out to make sure,” she said.

For more information on Camella’s Cupboard, visit camellascupboard.com.

Additional food services programs in New Milford

 The New Milford Food Bank, run by the town’s Social Services department, offers multiple programs and emergency assistance. It can be reached on the town of New Milford website, newmilford.org.

 The Methodist Church has a food pantry called Our Daily Bread. It can be reached by visiting http://www.newmilfordumc.org/our-daily-bread.html.

 Connecticut Food Share is a mobile food pantry that is housed at Faith Church. For more information, visit ctfoodbank.org.

 Loaves and Fishes Hospitality House serves daily meals. It can be reached at loavesandfishesnewmilford.org.