Former public defender creates Milford pantry to feed the hungry

MILFORD — Susan Brown has long sought to aid those suffering from food insecurity — and now she has created her own food pantry to do just that.

Two years ago, Brown was the public defender for the Milford/Ansonia Judicial District when she watched a CBS News report about an individual in the Midwest putting a pantry in their front yard just to help neighbors who were struggling.

“There were so many people who walked into the courthouse who were in need of help and support,” Brown said. “I thought it would be a really good idea to do something to help people. That was the goal.”

Brown’s attempt to place one outside the courthouse was not approved, but that did not discourage her. The next year, after she retired from her public defender role, she make the move — and Purple Pantry Boxes was born.

“When I saw that, I thought it was a fantastic idea,” Brown said about the news report. “I did not get approval to put a pantry at the courthouse, and I just let things go, and then in March, we started to see things start to go bad, we didn’t know back then how bad they were going to get, and at that point, I decided just to do it.

“Our thought was people were going to be hungry,” she added, “people were going to be in need, and what can we do.”

Brown said they started with plastic bins and put them in three locations, one at the MAC’s Firehouse Gallery, the Senior Center and at Woodmont.

“At Gulf Beach, they had a tiny library, but it was completely empty, so I put food in it,” Brown said. “The plastic bins (were taken) pretty quickly. I took a photo of the plastic bins, and we asked for the plastic bins not to be taken, but we knew it was going to happen.”

The Purple Pantry Boxes are purple wooden boxes with food inside them to help the community. Brown said it wasn’t until April of 2020 that they started to build them.

“After that, we stopped using the plastic bins, and we went straight to wood pantries,” Brown said. “The first wood pantry went on the corner of Ormand Street and Bridgeport Avenue, and it is still our most used pantry.”

The second location to be transitioned to a wooden box was at the Senior Center on April 16.

“It was obvious from the day we started that the food was being taken,” Brown said. “When we started, I was the only one filling them, and I was filling them every other day, and very quickly, I noticed it was getting empty so I moved it to an everyday model, and we have never left that model.”

The Purple Box Pantries are now at 11 locations including the Elks Lodge, YMCA, DeMario Gardens, United Way and one at the Wakeman Boys and Girls Clubs of America in Bridgeport.

“The Boys and Girls Clubs reached out and asked for a Purple Pantry Box, and they also said they would maintain it, but they just wanted to be part of us,” Brown said. “Just like the YMCA in Milford, they asked for the pantry, and they adopted it, and that’s why I say we have 11 pantries right now, but we maintain nine of them, and we are talking to a few churches right now who are looking to get a Purple Pantry Box.”

Brown said when they first started to put the plastic bins in public places her initial thinking was since it was at a public place, she wasn’t doing anything wrong.

“It was an unintelligent ridiculous thought,” Brown said, “and really, no one said anything. One of my volunteers told me we should put one at DeMario Gardens, which is right next to Silver Sands, and that is, Milford housing for seniors. We put one there, and that’s when we got called out, and I actually got a call from the police, they told me they were calling about the purple pantry and to call the person.”

Brown said she immediately called the person and told them she was sorry and if they wanted her to move it, she would, but she asked them not to throw anything away.

“The gentlemen I was talking to said, ‘well, let me think about it for a few days,’” said Brown. “Less than a week later, he called me again and asked me to put other pantries at different Milford housing sites.”

The Motto of the Purple Pantry Box is “take what you need and donate if you can.”

“I’ve talked to a couple of people who have asked to help because there were in periods of time where they needed the food from the pantry and now they didn’t, and they wanted to make sure they gave back,” Brown said. “So every time someone puts food in a pantry box, they are truly helping somebody else.”

Purple Pantry Boxes is now a 501(c)(3), and with that comes more responsibility, which is why Brown has a core group of volunteers who have taken on responsibilities in the nonprofit.

“I’m working with a volunteer who is applying for some grants because I’ve never done that before,” she said. “We grew really fast, and one of the reasons we grew so fast is because the need was so huge. So this is not a solo effort. I have 20 amazing volunteers.”

Recently, the Purple Pantry Boxes held their last food drive before Thanksgiving, but Brown said she is still trying to figure out how they are going to handle Thanksgiving.

“We have special food for Thanksgiving. We have mashed potatoes, stuffing, and lots of other fixings except for the turkey,” she said. “I’m trying to figure out the best way to make sure everybody who wants to make something a little bit better for Thanksgiving can get it. My board and I are talking about the best way to do that while still honoring the fact that this is anonymous, and we want this to be safe and friendly for people.”