NH Food Bank: Rise in need puts strain on food pantries around the state

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Officials with NH Food Banksay there has been a 44 percent increase in distribution so far this year as compared to this time last year. Courtesy Photo

MANCHESTER, NH – As school children continue to learn from home because of the novel coronavirus pandemic and more and more companies furlough workers or cut employees’ pay, the number of people turning to food pantries across the state is increasing.

“They are seeing new faces on a daily basis,” said Nancy Mellitt, director of development of the New Hampshire Food Bank, a program of Catholic Charities NH. The food bank services 425 non-profit food pantries and agencies across the state.

Mellitt said a few of the pantries are purchasing “more than we ever thought so it’s a strain financially for us. It’s going out as fast as it’s coming in.”

She said there has been a 44 percent increase in distribution so far this year as compared to this time last year.

“We’re having to purchase more food for distribution,” Mellitt said. There has been a bit of snag in obtaining that, she said, because a lot of the institutional packing needs to be transformed into consumer size.

For instance, food that became available when universities and colleges moved to online instruction comes in bulk. The food banks need consumer quantities, i.e. a five-pound bag of flour, not a 100-pound bag.

The NH Food Bank opened in 1984, distributing 250,000 pounds of food that year. In 2018, it distributed 14.1 million pounds of food across the state. That translates into 11,923,938 meals.

One of those non-profits that relies on the NH Food Bank is the Feeding Hope Food Pantry housed at the Harvest Christian Fellowship Church on Willow Street in Berlin.

Sarah Swift, director of the food pantry, said when it is opened (Monday to Thursday 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.) on average they serve 15 to 20 families a day although last Thursday she and an assistant handed out food to 30 families.

The pantry gives provisions to mostly residents of Berlin, Gorham and Milan, but also sometimes people residing in Dummer, Stark, Shelburne and Randolph. Last year, they served more than 44,000 meals, she said.

“The need is definitely there,” she said.

One volunteer helps her a couple of days a week and now her husband, who was laid off, is lending a hand.

Gather Food Pantry workers Scott McKee, President of the Board, and UNH student volunteer Jared Hett unload a truck full of food as lines form at the Rochester Community Center Tuesday afternoon.
[Deb Cram/Fosters.com and Seacoastonline]

Coos County, the northernmost county in the state, has a population of about 32,000 and a median household income of $45,386, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Berlin has a median household income of $37,969, nearly half the statewide median household income of $73,381.

The pantry provides families with staples like cereal, fruit, pasta and when available, vegetables such as potatoes, cabbage and carrots.

The problem is obtaining the food, Swift said. Fifty percent of it comes from the NH Food Pantry and the other half is from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We get a little bit here and there,” she said. “We get donations and we’ve had money come in too.”

The NH Food Bank is sending the pantry a special order next week.

“I’m getting a special shipment next week from the NH Food Bank. I don’t have to put in an order. We need it and they got it. They put the word out,” she said.

Swift believes the need is going to continue to grow “because there’s a lot of folks out of work. A lot of people want to go back to work but the work isn’t there right now.”

She said originally the pantry was opened to everybody but now it is on a case by case basis. Many of those using it receive some sort of assistance because they are low income but, Swift said, that is changing with people being out of work.

“The longer it goes on the harder it gets,” she said. “That’s when we start seeing more families coming and more elderly coming also.”

Cathy Kuhn, PhD, chief strategy officer for Families in Transition-New Horizons, which operates Manchester’s soup kitchen and the state’s largest homeless shelter, is making plans to implement a food delivery service for those who need to be quarantined or isolated because they were in contact with someone who has COVID-19 or has tested positive for it.  

“It does seem that right now many organizations are coming together to ensure that families are continuing to be able to access food.  Our food pantry is still open and available to Manchester residents. I know that the schools are still providing food for families. And a number of other programs such as 1269 Café and the Salvation Army are providing food to people who are homeless and sleeping outside,” Kuhn said.

She, too, reports an increase in the number of people seeking help.

In Portsmouth, Gather (Food Pantry) is one of the oldest social service agencies in the state. More than 200 years old, it began in 1816 when a small group of women decided they were going to feed the families of local fishermen.

Seneca Bernard, Associate Director of Gather Food Pantry helps unload a truck full of food furing the 5th week of doing Meals 4 Kids in Rochester, and then switching to Mobile Pantry later in the day. Workers are wearing masks as well as clients due to Covid-19. Photo/Deb Cram/Fosters.com

Since then, each year it provides more than 1 million pounds of food to those in need, shares over 100,000 pounds of surplus food to 20 local pantries, feeds more than 700 children through its Meals 4 Kids program at 10 sites on the Seacoast and delivers groceries and fresh-made meals to 40 homebound seniors through its Meals 4 Seniors program.

They, too, rely on the NH Food Bank as well as local grocery stores.

Visitors to the pantry, which operates like a grocery store with carts, have not increased, probably because the vulnerable older population is staying home. Currently, only two people are allowed inside at a time and hours have been shortened to allow staff to sanitize the pantry.

Deb Anthony, executive director, said Gather pre-empted the expected surge at the pantry by implementing its mobile market and activating its Meals 4 Kids program, which normally provides food in the summer, not during the school year because the school district provides those meals.

During distance learning, Meals 4 Kids goes out three days a week to Portsmouth, the Hamptons, Seabrook, Rochester and Kittery, Maine. It is for those families with children who receive free or reduced-price lunches at school.

Each family receives enough ingredients for 10 meals per child: a dozen eggs and a half-gallon of milk per child; bread, meat of the week – it could be hamburger – one pound per child. Recipes are included as well as spices.

Also included are cans of beans – black, chickpeas, etc. Vegetables usually are carrots, celery, onions, potatoes and three different fruits and everyday snacks are also included.

“We’ve been doing this for five years in the summer,” Anthony said. “We activated that immediately. We’re on the road three days a week with that. And then we do mobile market which is for anybody.”

Anthony said they text people to let them know where they will be setting up the mobile Farmer’s Market. Last Wednesday, they staged it in the parking lot at the Newington Mall and later in the day at the Post Office in Kittery, Maine.

On Tuesday in Rochester, she said more than 80 people showed up for the mobile farmer’s market. Years ago, she said, Gather committed to providing fresh foods instead of canned goods, working with local farms to obtain fruits and vegetables.

People like it, she said, because of the nourishment and because they can save on groceries.

She said Gather is committed to providing food for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic as long as they can collect food. “We’ve done a fair amount of stockpiling canned goods which we normally don’t do,” she said.Anthony said they also have some unique donors and are seeing a whole new group of volunteers.

“One volunteer’s mission is to find toilet paper for us,” she said. “We’ve been buying it by the caseload but now it’s hard to get.”

Traditionally, Gather doesn’t’ do a ton of personal care items but tries to stock toothpaste and women’s personal items.

“I just think this is going to be a really interesting time,” she said. Gather is trying to figure out how to reach hospitality workers who are out of a job and who probably never come to a food pantry and may need some assistance.

“We have one donor who always gives us Market Basket gift cards around the holidays,” she said. He donated 1,000 $15 gift cards each year. “He just donated another 2,000 $15 cards,” Anthony said. “We may be able to give them (hospitality workers) a couple of Market Basket cars until unemployment or the stimulus checks come in.”

On Friday, from 7 to 8 p.m., WMUR is partnering with iHeartRadio for a fundraiser called “Project Community: New Hampshire Together From Home” to raise money for the NH Food Bank. A $1 donation is equal to two meals.

Anyone interested also may make a donation through the NH Food Bank’s website at www.nhfoodbank.org.


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