On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, about a dozen volunteers were busy packing boxes in the historic Lambert School in Ridgefield. Just in time for the holidays, boxes came with a turkey among the usual items of canned food, produce and other staples.
Those packing up the boxes and sending it off to families are volunteers for Neighbors Helping Neighbors, a food bank that has been feeding the community since 1982.
In October, Neighbors Helping Neighbors served 130 households, equating to more than 400 clients, food bank coordinator Pam Bong said. The total food going out that month was 16,375 pounds.
The food donated comes from a variety of sources, including the United States Department of Agriculture, individual donations and food drives hosted by local organizations. Ridgefield’s grocer, Rosauers, also donates, contributing nearly 1,500 pounds last month.
In one instance, a local farmer brought in organic produce and recently contributed hundreds of pounds of apples from this year’s crop, Bong said.
Bong said there are close to 20 volunteers at Neighbors Helping Neighbors. On a usual Tuesday distribution day, clients are signed in at their cars. They then drive around to the back of the building where volunteers load up the vehicles with the week’s supply.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the food bank had bi-weekly distribution, but that and the need to have clients stay in their cars were major changes to their business model.
“We’re just trying to not get sick,” Bong said.
Neighbors Helping Neighbors was able to operate throughout the pandemic, which was especially important given the strain placed on the community.
“We didn’t take any time off, we kept working,” Bong said. “We figured it needed to keep going because people needed help.”
Ahead of the weekly dispensing of food before Thanksgiving, Bong said she didn’t even realize the food bank was set to hit its 40th anniversary.
“Wow,” she said, thinking about the milestone.
Bong has been involved with Neighbors Helping Neighbors for 27 years. She first got involved through her mother, Gloria Chipman. Both of her parents are still volunteers at the food bank.
Bong took over the role of coordinator in 2008.
“I guess I have a calling,” Bong said.
Bong said her husband, Robert, supported her work up until his death in 2021.
Although Neighbors Helping Neighbors have owned the former schoolhouse for decades, keeping the equipment operational is an ongoing challenge given the age of some of it, like the freezer.
“The building has to keep working,” Bong said.
Insurance on the building also puts a strain on the food bank’s finances, she added.
Mowing has become an issue as well. It used to be something Bong’s late husband handled. In an ideal situation, Bong would like to see the open space and overgrown trees on the property turned into an orchard. Raised planting beds could also help supplement Neighbors Helping Neighbors’ offerings with fresh produce.
“Instead of having a yard, (I’d like to) have a garden out there with pathways,” Bong said.
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