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Sunday, March 18 News

Food pantry now to pay rent for St. Mark's space

For about 13 years, the New Canaan Food Pantry has operated at no cost at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, where it stores donations and serves residents in need.

But after recent renovations to the facility, the church and the town agreed this month the space now will cost $1,200 a month -- retroactive to Jan. 1, 2014, through the end of 2015.

Carol McDonald, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, told the Board of Selectmen Aug. 5 that the agreement was needed because of the renovations, the cost of utilities and maintenance.

"The space is very nice. It's very secure for our storage areas and it's easily accessible for our residents," McDonald said.

The board unanimously approved the lease agreement.

McDonald said the money for the monthly rental, which includes utilities and maintenance, would come from the Food Pantry Fund, which is made up of private donations and is managed by her department.

"We do have the dollars to cover the lease agreement," she said.

Richard DePatie, parish administrator, said the agreement "was a mutual decision" with the town.

"We had some costs from the renovation and, of course, the cost of utilities has increased," he said.

DePatie said the renovations included the addition of a new walkway, carpet replacement and other general upgrades to the roughly 1,700-square-foot facility.

"It's a large space," he said. "There are two storage areas that are quite large and then there's a common area where their clients pick up the food every other week."

The church also has a garden where volunteers grow vegetables and fruit that are donated to the food pantry.

McDonald said the number of residents using the food pantry has increased in recent years.

"We are feeding about 180 people in our food pantry," she said, "sometimes up to 200."

The number is much higher than surrounding towns, McDonald said, because the New Canaan program "runs very differently than anyone else's pantry."

"We're very well stocked. We just have a tremendous need here," she said. "The numbers have increased. ... We have three to five new clients almost every two weeks."

Betsy Peyreigne, chairman of the Weston Food Pantry, a nonprofit private organization, was surprised to learn the church is now charging for the facility.

"Any place that I am aware of, that is run through the town, they do not pay a fee," she said. "It's such a necessary service in these (difficult) economic times. I hope they are able to find a resolution to this so that money is not only spent on rent but goes to food and to those who need it. I would love to see that money going straight to the needy."

McDonald said she did not ask other churches for a facility because her goal is to find a town building to house the food pantry once the Town Hall renovation is completed.

"This is just a short-term agreement," she said. "Moving the food pantry is a major feat."

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The town, however, is now tied to the lease until the end of next year. Town Hall is scheduled to be completed by spring 2015.

The lease agreement in New Canaan is renewable on Jan. 1, 2016, at $1,250 a month.

Peyreigne's food pantry is at a town-owned facility near Weston Town Hall. The town charged her $1 to use the space for 30 years and it pays for the utilities. The Weston program serves about 100 households, she said.

In addition to rent, the New Canaan Food Pantry paid $5,000 to have the facility painted this year, but the costs will not be deducted from the retroactive agreement, McDonald told the Board of Selectmen. She also noted that if the Food Pantry Fund runs out of money, the town likely would cover the difference.

"If the town needed to step in, they certainly would," she said. "It's a town entity. It's a really important function ... and we would do anything we have to do to make sure it continues to run."

However, she said, there should be enough funds to cover the duration of the lease, through Dec. 31, 2015.

Although the fund is managed by the town, the program is run by volunteers.

Selectman Beth Jones, who called the church facility "the perfect space" for the food pantry, and thanked St. Mark's for "hosting us at no cost for so many years."

noliveira@bcnnew.com, 203-330-6582, @olivnelson

Nelson Oliveira|Education/general assignment reporter