Reprint of New Haven Register Story in print November 20, 2021

This New Haven agency will deliver 1,200 Thanksgiving dinners; they are ‘in the business to serve others’

Photo of Mark Zaretsky
From left, Jill Meyerhoff, executive director of FISH of Greater New Haven, is photographed next to a pallet of stuffing with Rafi Luna, bilingual client intake representative, and Jim Sonet, volunteer client intake representative, at the FISH warehouse in New Haven Nov. 17, 2021.
From left, Jill Meyerhoff, executive director of FISH of Greater New Haven, is photographed next to a pallet of stuffing with Rafi Luna, bilingual client intake representative, and Jim Sonet, volunteer client intake representative, at the FISH warehouse in New Haven Nov. 17, 2021.Arnold Gold / Hearst Connecticut Media

NEW HAVEN — It was just a few years ago that FISH of Greater New Haven would deliver 600 Thanksgiving dinners to the homes of people in need in the city and surrounding towns to help put food in their bellies and some holiday cheer on their tables.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.

This Saturday, more than 100 volunteer drivers from FISH — Food In Service to the Homebound — will far surpass that number when it delivers turkeys and bags of Thanksgiving food, including fresh produce, to 1,200 homes in New Haven, East Haven, West Haven and Hamden.

Volunteers and staff members have been spending the week getting all the donated food delivered to FISH’s warehouse on Peck Street in the Fair Haven section and assembling the bags with stuffing, cranberry sauce, fresh vegetables, gravy and other goodies.

Mayor Justin Elicker joins city and elected officials and FISH of Greater New Haven Executive Director Jill Meyerhoff and New Reach CEO Kellyann Day to celebrate the non-profit food agency’s move to a larger warehouse at 269 Peck St. in New Haven in 2021
Mayor Justin Elicker joins city and elected officials and FISH of Greater New Haven Executive Director Jill Meyerhoff and New Reach CEO Kellyann Day to celebrate the non-profit food agency’s move to a larger warehouse at 269 Peck St. in New Haven in 2021Peter Hvizdak / Hearst Connecticut Media file photo

The numbers rose so dramatically in part because FISH, with a mission to serve people who can’t or find it difficult to get out of their homes, is the only organization in the area that provides food to needy people and delivers it directly to their home.

As such, it was among the only ones able to keep operating during the locked-down, shut-in days early in the pandemic, said Executive Director Jill Meyerhoff and Jim Sonet, a retired co-owner of an electronics company who has been volunteering for several years for FISH, currently as an internal intake coordinator.

At one point, when a group of emergency assistance pantries in and around the city banded together to try to deliver food to the homes of people, they asked FISH whether it could run the program for them, but in the end “we just took it over and absorbed their clients,” Sonet said.

“During this whole COVID crisis, some of the pantries in New Haven, they wanted to figure out a way” to keep helping people, said Meyerhoff, who first was hired as interim director in April 2020. “FISH was the only pantry in New Haven that was going to stay open because we’re the only one that doesn’t have people come in to get their food.

“We’re the only one that delivers,” she said.

“The thing we realized from doing this was that there are a lot of homebound elderly and disabled people — more than we ever thought,” Meyerhoff said.

Now, the agency delivers to more than 1,100 homes each month, but for Thanksgiving, with several alders also providing meals to needy constituents in their wards, it will be more like 1,200 homes, she said.

FISH, which started here in 1968, works with partners including Massaro Farm in Woodbridge, BJs, Big Y, Bozzuto’s and Trader Joe’s, all of which donate food that might otherwise go bad and be thrown away in a few days, said Sonet, who lives in West Haven.

“Thanksgiving is normally our biggest event,” said Meyerhoff. “But this year obviously is going to be our biggest.

“I have a wonderful team of six people that work with me,” but “the rest is volunteer-driven,” said Meyerhoff. “We are so grateful for the help that we have.”

Those helpers including people such as Carmen Baldwin of North Haven, Rafi Luna of New Haven and Bob Schumitz of East Haven, to name a few.

Baldwin is on staff at New Reach, FISH’s landlord, which helps people in need of shelter and is located next-door to FISH, but she also volunteers as a driver for FISH before Thanksgiving — and will be delivering nine or 10 turkeys and bags of fixings on Saturday.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy assists with grocery deliveries at FISH of Greater New Haven on Friday, Dec. 14, 2018.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy assists with grocery deliveries at FISH of Greater New Haven on Friday, Dec. 14, 2018.Courtesy of Senator Murphy’s office

“I was one of those people” who needed help not all that long ago, “I was one of those people who suffered severe poverty,” she said.

“My whole life changed once I got to know who the Lord is,” Baldwin said. “Now I’m actually doing the job that I was made to do.”

Baldwin said she “took a huge pay cut” from her job as a personal injury paralegal to take the New Reach job, and she’s glad she did.

“This is the most rewarding job that I’ve had — ever — in my life,” she said. “Ultimately, I’m in the business to serve others. The rest of my days on this earth are committed to” helping others.

Luna, who lives in the city’s Beaver Hills neighborhood, is a paid bilingual client intake representative at FISH most of the time, but he’ll also be volunteering to translate Saturday for the 35-40 percent of FISH’s clients who are primarily Spanish speakers — and deliver Thanksgiving meals if they need him to.

“The way I originally got connected, me and my friends realized that a lot of people weren’t getting food” and “we originally wanted to start our own service that did this. But we realized FISH was already doing it” so he went to work for FISH, instead.

He likes the organization because “through and through, it’s actually good people that care about the community.”

SERVPRO partnered with FISH of Greater New Haven for a food and donation drive in 2019.
SERVPRO partnered with FISH of Greater New Haven for a food and donation drive in 2019.Contributed photo /

mark.zaretsky@hearstmediact.com