By day – At Pawcatuck, partnership gives pantry patrons healthier choices

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Stonington – When the pantry at Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center returned to normal operations before the pandemic this week, it had more to offer its customers than ever before.

There was new signage and other printed materials promoting healthy food choices. It had staff and volunteers freshly trained by dietitians from Hartford HealthCare.

“Until today, we left bags of food for curbside pickup. Today we have reopened, ”said Susan Sedensky, executive director of the center, on Tuesday. “Again, people can come in and choose whatever they want. “

And increasingly, she said, what they want are nutritious foods that meet their specific needs.

Amid the pandemic, Sedensky set out to satisfy that desire, meeting months ago with Joe Zuzel, director of community health for the East Hartford HealthCare region, who had a similar interest in improving food bank services. Both saw the value of educating the centre’s clients on food choices, thereby improving their overall health and decreasing their reliance on the health care system.

Zuzel asked dietitians at Backus Hospital in Norwich to train staff at the center and the volunteers who work there in preparing food boxes for people with special dietary needs.

“You can also put a lot of information in these boxes,” Zuzel said.

Indeed, the centre’s “nutritional advice cards” offer advice to clients with heart disease, kidney disease and diabetes. The “Heart Healthy” card, for example, advises people with heart problems to consider choosing foods such as skim and 1% milk, low fat yogurt, lean cuts of beef, poultry and fish. skinless, vegetable proteins (beans, unsalted nuts, seeds, tofu) and “ALL” fresh or frozen vegetables and fruits.

“It is our hope to reduce individual trips to the doctor and hospital readmission rates,” Zuzel said.

Donna Handley, the Eastern Region vice president who heads Backus, said the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center program reflects a national trend that Hartford HealthCare hopes to replicate in other pantries in the region.

“More and more health care is provided in the community, with less emphasis on acute care,” she said. “What impressed me about the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center is how proud the staff and volunteers are in creating these food boxes. It’s about building relationships.

The center, which serves residents of Stonington, North Stonington and Westerly, as well as the homeless, served some 1,500 families last year, a substantial increase from previous years due to the pandemic, Sedensky said .

“We saw people we had never seen before,” she said. “Some had never been in a pantry.”

Each customer is entitled to 35 pounds of food per week, plus bread and all-you-can-eat produce. The center is supported by local grocery stores and accepts donations. She also grows some 2,000 pounds of vegetables a year in her own community garden, which she distributes in full to her customers. On Tuesday, asparagus, beets, eggplants, beans and potatoes were sprouting.

“We are always asking for donations of soup, SPAM and clam chowder,” Sedensky said. “We go out and buy eggs, milk, yogurt…”

Every Friday, the center prepares “Weekend Backpacks” filled with two days of food for children eligible for free and reduced school meals.

Backpacks are also being prepared keeping in mind the centre’s new focus on healthy choices, Sedensky said.

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