February is historically a low donation month for the Wilton Food Pantry. Some third grade Brownies in Girl Scout Troop 50425 are hoping their recent trip to learn about food pantry services will inspire you to donate.

The girls visited the pantry on Thursday, Jan. 29, and were shown around by Lauren Hughes, the social worker who runs the food pantry for Wilton Social Services.

As they filed in to the room stocked with canned goods and food boxes, Hughes asked them to help stock the shelves with the items they brought. They searched for the right places to put their canned tomatoes and shampoo, the cake mix and canned vegetables.

There were some sweet moments of childish innocence that to an adult listener highlighted how profound the experience is to walk into the food pantry–and how much of an impact the service is to those in need. “Wow, it smells so good!” and “I just want to eat everything here!” were some of the girls’ first reactions. Knowing that there are people in need here in Wilton, and knowing what they must think when they walk in to shop makes it that much more important to consider helping the food pantry when the need is the greatest.

The girls talked with Hughes about what they were expecting to see at a food pantry, and what the reality is for the 57 households (133 people) who receive assistance from the town.

“The Wilton Food Pantry is essentially a free grocery store. We’re open to anybody who lives in Wilton and who comes to us and says that they’re having trouble financially and can’t afford to buy groceries. I know it’s hard to imagine that in this town and in the families you live in, that there are people who don’t have enough money to go to the grocery store. Anything you see here, they can come and take for their families and they don’t have to pay for it, because you were kind enough to give it to us for free so we can give it to them for free,” Hughes explained.

“Because of your generosity, some people will be able to have things to eat.”

She tried to put it in perspective for them in a way that 8- and 9-year olds could best understand.

“Of those 133 people, some of them are senior citizens and some of them are the age of your moms and dads, and some of them are your ages. We’re feeding those families,” she added.

She explained that in addition to the goods that are donated, monetary donations are also put to very good use.

“We use that money every week to buy from the Village Market milk, juice, eggs, chicken, beef, sometimes cheese, always yogurt. Families who have children 18 years old and younger can take one of each of those things, so that helpfully they’ll have balanced protein and fresh food in their diets,” Hughes said.

The troop learned how the wider community helps out those in need. They heard how the Wilton pantry participates in programs run through the Lower Fairfield County Food Bank, and can buy food there at very reduced cost. As well, they heard about how local organizations and businesses pitch in.

“In the summertime, Ambler Farm gives us fresh vegetables. And someone at the high school organized a bread run at Panera Bread, and every Sunday night and Tuesday night they pick up the day-old bread that Panera is not going to be able to sell the next day, and they bring it here. So twice a week we get bread and pastries from Panera,” Hughes explained.

She also explained that when she first started working at the food pantry 20 years ago, there were only 10 families the pantry supported.

One of the girls asked, “If they can’t afford to buy food, how can they afford heat to cook?”

Hughes answered that it was an excellent question. “We help people with heating too. There’s something called a CT Fuel Assistance Program, and we help people sign up for that. We also have a charitable foundation called the Wilton Community Assistance Fund. A lot of people donate money and then if somebody comes in and says they can’t pay for their oil, Cathy Pierce, the director of Wilton Social Services, will talk with them and figure out how to help them.”

While the supplies are usually low during February, Hughes said that the pantry is always low on paper and household goods and personal care items.

“Paper towels, toilet paper, Kleenex, laundry detergent, dish washing detergent, toothpaste, toothbrushes, body soap, shampoo, conditioner. The reason is that a lot of the people who shop here also get assistance through the state of CT, through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). That can be used to buy anything in the grocery store that they can eat. But it can’t be used to buy anything else they might need–for people with little children, even diapers and wipes. So those are the things that are always, always in demand.

Hughes reminded the girls how important it is to not donate items that have expired.

“A lot of people are under the misperception that people who are poor are willing to eat anything, even if it’s expired. But we don’t put those foods on our shelves. We want only things that you would eat yourself,” she said.

One of the girls asked how Hughes could tell if people were ever pretending in order to get free food.

She said that the question is one that’s frequently asked, especially when other groups of children come in to learn about the food pantry.

“Nobody in all the years has pretended to be so poor. We sit down and ask them a lot of questions and ask for a lot of information–they have to bring us bank statements and prove they have an address in town. Honestly, nobody pretends.”

That’s when one of the other girls spoke up:  “It’s a serious thing,” she told her friend.

“It is a serious thing,” Hughes nodded.

Brownie Troop 50425 will be collecting food outside of Stop and Shop on Feb. 21 from 10 a.m.-noon. To find out how to donate directly to the Wilton Food Pantry, or if you are in need of assistance, contact Lauren Hughes or Cathy Pierce at Wilton Social Services, 203.834.6238. The Wilton Food Pantry is located in Comstock Community Center at 180 School Rd..