On either side of the Connecticut River lies a multitude of largely exclusive concerns that affect Granite Staters and Vermonters in an equally incalculable number of ways. But one matter that has been particularly exacerbated by the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, the need for nourishment by those who are food insecure, has connected the two states in yet another battle to help residents traverse the raging, ever-changing rapids of our current collective state.
New Hampshire has witnessed a drastic uptick in the number of inhabitants that require food assistance. For instance, the number of Granite Staters who reported to be food insecure in April 2020 is approximately 2.8 times higher than what was recorded in December 2018, according to state food insecurity and emergency food use data. To put that in perspective, the predicted percentage of residents who would report to be food insecure in New Hampshire prior to the pandemic was 7%, according to a Northwestern Institute for Policy Research report published earlier this month.
In Vermont, a similar reality has taken shape over the past three months. Vermont, with 14.1% reported to be food insecure, is the only state in the country to have a food insecurity rate below 15%, according to the Northwestern Institute for Policy Research report.
In the U.S. overall, data collected by the Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement — a crucial source of state- and national-level data from households regarding food expenditures, security and nutrition assistance — figures that food insecurity during COVID-19 is 2.12 times what it was before the start of the pandemic.
Locally, community kitchens and food banks have been working to respond quickly to constant fluctuations and new orders implemented by state and federal health officials to increase the amount of food available as more people look to nonprofit organizations as a safety net to acquire the resources they need.
But it has been easier for some facilities to adapt to the expanded demand than others.
The morning after White River Junction United Methodist Church officials were alerted to an act of vandalism at the organization’s food pantry, an equally unexpected discovery was made just outside their front door: a substantial amount of donated food gathered by local residents as a show of community support.
For the volunteers, including Sharing & Caring Food Pantry Director Hannah Cerasoli, the incident was just another unforeseen obstacle — similar to a handful of other equally unfortunate events that also resulted in the waste of crucial perishable foods and beverages scattered across several surrounding properties — to overcome in their pursuit to provide nutritious food to those in the area who need it.
“What we have at the church is a great free resource,” Cerasoli said. “Take all the food, that is what it’s there for. If you need it, you can have it. But please be respectful when you utilize it because finding it that way is discouraging.”
But it was the positive response from the community, not the negative act, that ultimately defined the experience.
“We have seen so much community support,” Cerasoli said. “I come and I find boxes of food that have just been left outside of the pantry and I just feel that it’s the community’s way of saying, ‘We see you, you’re doing a good job and we want you to keep going,’ so we appreciate it. The community has truly stepped up.”
Housed just outside the White River Junction United Methodist Church, the food pantry is just as old as the pandemic it is trying to combat, but the idea has been deeply rooted in the area for quite some time.
“I have heard from so many people that, ‘We have been saying for so long that there was a need for something like this right in downtown,’” she said. “People seem happy that we can be that middleman, that place they can support to help this immediate area, which is amazing to me.”
The concept finally found some life not in the soil but atop the church’s driveway. With the use of tote-boxes and coolers, members of the church offered their time to help kickstart the humanitarian program. It was during those days that Cerasoli was able to gauge what was working, what wasn’t and how the initiative could reach more people more effectively.
One such issue that continues to persist today has been the substantial number of destructive acts that, according to Cerasoli, appear to be deliberate acts to potentially sabotage the program or dispirit its proponents. Many in the general public have chimed in with the recommendation that the facility purchase cameras to monitor the pantry even when members aren’t there in the hopes of preventing future occurrences. But Cerasoli wants to ensure that the cameras wouldn’t result in turning people away who would rather keep their identity unknown.
“One of our core values when we began the program was trying to respect the patrons’ anonymity when they come to the pantry. We feel like that is something that sets us apart. We know that food insecurity does not look like one thing. It’s kind of a scale and it can look like many different things that many people are not necessarily comfortable having to ask for help or go somewhere or give their information and this program is really easy for people to access and no one needs to know that you came.”
The church is looking further into installing cameras to ensure that the pantry remains intact.
Another problem currently being worked out is the program sustainability following the novel coronavirus pandemic. Cerasoli said that the number of people who visit the facility throughout the week has steadily increased since it first opened but some resources that have partnered with the church have slowly started to retract as Vermont’s case level has remained low.
“I have seen many of the resources that got started because of COVID-19 starting to pull back now as things are going. And I have wondered how that will then affect us as we only know the program to be during coronavirus times. So I anticipate that we will continue to see an increase in the number of people visiting as more people know that we are here for them until maybe things settle down a bit more and others have stopped coming.”
Cerasoli noted that the program’s future also depends on the durability of the connections made with local businesses and organizations amid the pandemic. Some of these partnerships include Stern’s Quality Produce, which provides fresh produce; Willing Hands, which provides 150 pounds of food each week; Jake’s Market & Deli, which provides prepared foods ranging from sandwiches and soups to chilis; and Harvest Hill, a senior living facility that provides juices, cereals and dairy products.
But Cerasoli stressed the importance of individual donations from local residents who wish to do their part.
“We primarily get most of our resources through donations,” she said. “We’re very, very lucky to have community partnerships that we have formed over the last couple of months but if anyone wants to donate they can come, literally open the doors and drop off non-perishable and perishable items, pet food and personal care items. We are open 24/7.”
For the entire White River Junction United Methodist Church community, the initiative’s growth has been something that was always hoped for but never anticipated.
“When we began we knew it was a quick solution to address the problem in the moment. And at that point we had hopes that it would continue as a long-term, permanent fixture but now it has grown to be so much bigger than I ever expected.”
Those interested in supporting the White River Junction United Methodist Church’s Sharing & Caring Food Pantry can visit their Facebook page or call (802) 295-7091.
‘It’s not just the food, it’s everything’
An inconspicuous shed-like structure standing along the edge of Alstead’s Cold River was full with the sound of laughter and the smell of freshly cooked hot dogs Thursday morning as volunteers with the Fall Mountain Family Meals’s Meals on Wheels program worked in unison to package approximately 230 meals for residents in surrounding towns needing food assistance.
The 34-year-old Meals on Wheels program, headed by Director Mary Lou Huffling, primarily serves seven towns in two counties — Acworth, Alstead, Charlestown, Langdon, North Charlestown, Walpole and North Walpole — and is just one of many initiatives that the organization as a whole offers to assist the community.
But Mary Lou, otherwise referred to as “Angel” by volunteers, puts no borders on how far she is willing to go for someone in need of a warm meal. Especially during the pandemic, the importance of the service shines through even though the organization can only operate the Meals on Wheels program due to virus-related guidelines.
“It’s been going great,” Mary Lou said. “We saw a need and here we are. People in the community have supported us for the past 34 years and continue to support us now.”
Mary Lou continued: “There is a big difference doing just Meals on Wheels because we are so used to doing the sit-down meals too. But it is working awesome. It is food for the body, food for the spirit.”
Fall Mountain Friendly Meals oversees three separate meal programs consisting of the aforementioned Meals on Wheels, which delivers food and lively conversation to the senior population every Tuesday and Thursday; Friendly Meals, which offers local residents an opportunity to meet up at the Alstead Fire Station with friends and play a game of cards all while receiving a nutritious sit-down meal; and the Fall Mountain Food Shelf, which provides perishable and nonperishable food in both Charlestown and Langdon.
For Marti Tripp, a volunteer with Fall Mountain Friendly Meals since April, giving back to the community has always been something she has felt important for one to do.
“When I first volunteered I didn’t know what I was getting into,” she said. “And I thought, you know, just two days a week, do the math, and a couple hours, what’s the big deal. Well, we do a lot of work, and to know that you are helping someone who needs help, there is no question that you keep doing it. It’s not just the food, it’s everything.”
For fellow volunteer Jane Perry, who also has been with the organization for two months, she saw a lack of employment caused by the pandemic as an opportunity to help package meals for local residents, something her daughter used to do with this same program.
“It has been fun,” she said. “ It is never boring and we all tend to get along with each other which helps out immensely.”
Along with delivering much needed food to the senior population, drivers also take the time to talk with the individual and check in to see what they need, as family may not live close in some cases. The program is especially important for the local area, specifically among this demographic, as delivered meals intended to be a single portion may become two servings as some senior residents use the meals for multiple days.
To operate the program, Mary Lou and the Fall Mountain Family Meals run a match grant in partnership with a family-owned foundation. The grant, which will be accepting donations from now until July 31, has a target total collection of $10,000.
Those interested in supporting the Fall Mountain Family Meals organization can visit their Facebook page, email at FallMountainFoodShelf@gmail.com, or send a check addressed to the program to P.O. Box 191 in Alstead.
‘Lend a helping hand’
Although Gov. Chris Sununu’s Safer at Home Phase 2.0 plan has allowed businesses across the Granite State such as restaurants and gyms to reopen resulting in an influx of recently furloughed employees returning back to work — the need for food assistance remains widely evident at any local community kitchen or food pantry.
In Claremont, the situation is no different, forcing leadership at the Claremont Soup Kitchen to find creative ways to persevere along with a large amount of local support.
For practically all businesses and organizations, the virus has hindered their ability to function properly, and while the Claremont Soup Kitchen is not exempt from this reality, the organization has been able to keep on going despite the pandemic hitting at seemingly the worst time — at least in some respects.
Just prior to emergency declarations being drafted and implemented by state officials, the Claremont Soup Kitchen was scheduled to host one of its biggest food drives of the year in partnership with the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Department and United Way. The organization’s ability to carry out its important initiatives depends largely on grants and private donations, with a bit from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, as well as local and regional food drives.
However, it wasn’t long before the community would
Today, the Claremont Police Department is hosting a food drive from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Hobby Lobby parking lot on Washington Street to support the kitchen and its numerous programs.
“It was so nice for the Claremont Police Department to reach out how they did,” said Cindy Stevens, executive director at the Claremont Soup Kitchen. “There are always people willing to help, always. We have definitely seen an increase in the number of people willing to lend a hand.”
For Stevens, the start of the pandemic was almost indescribable in how significantly things changed around her.
“Immediately it was very, very crazy,” she said. “We kind of just sat there and looked at each other and said, ‘What do we do from here? How do we make this work?’”
At the same time the kitchen began to experience an unpredictable rise in the number of people needing food assistance.
“It was a pretty instant change,” Stevens said. “Immediately we saw an increase in families and children that needed assistance. We started to see a loss in donations through Feed America, Hannafords and Walmart. We were almost at nothing for meat donations which is huge because we give out meat with nonperishable boxes and it also helps supply the kitchen to cook meals.”
In the first month alone purchasing expenses to acquire the amount of food needed doubled the kitchen’s expenses. The kitchen also experienced a loss in volunteers above the age of 60 in an effort to help ensure their health and safety amid the pandemic as well as those visiting the organization. And still today the kitchen is at a standstill at the amount it can order in bulk, leaving it in a day-by-day state of when it will be able to receive the quantities it desires.
Yet, on Friday, the kitchen was up and running strong, with light-hearted discussions outside and residents coming to the facility on Central Street ready to pick up some fresh produce while also not hesitating to help unload a new delivery.
“Now I think we have a really good system,” Stevens said. “We have finally got into the groove and things are going rather smoothly. I can say that the immediate increase has evened out a bit more. I think with people getting back to work our numbers are smoothing out a bit more.”
Those interested in supporting the Claremont Soup Kitchen can call (603) 543-3290. The Claremont Soup Kitchen offers a Summer Children Community Lunch Program at Barnes Park, Monadnock Park, Veterans Park in Claremont. The organization is also offering breakfast from Monday to Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., lunch from noon to 1 p.m. and dinner from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. The food pantry is open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
A true haven
At Upper Valley Haven in Hartford, Vermont, staff and volunteers have been working diligently in the face of countless hindrances placed before them by the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic to maintain crucial services that assist a significant number of local residents with various needs.
Using the power of community and collaboration, Upper Valley Haven has continued to provide many of its usual services to the thousands who visit the facility each year with some caveats and a few innovations.
In Executive Director Michael Redmond’s view, the organization has done quite well navigating the uncharted waters.
“We have been fortunate that Upper Valley residents and organizations that we partner with and rely on responded well to try to help us address the challenges that our neighbors are facing,” Redmond said.
But there have been some challenges along the way.
The first obstacle appeared at the start of the pandemic when a majority of the volunteers, who are ages 60 and above, were told to take a break as the virus was becoming more prevalent in New England. But, Redmond said that many in the community — approximately 100 who are in the younger demographic — answered the call to replace the 160 volunteers that had to step back.
Similar to many other community kitchens and food shelves in the area, Upper Valley Haven has switched its congregate meal program to a take-out box program for the time being. But looking back at the past three months, Redmond and fellow staff feel lucky to say they can offer anything at this point in the year. Worries about the food supply disruption became the primary thought for many centers across the country as meat supply factories began shutting down due to the spread of the virus, thus limiting the amount supermarkets and other suppliers had to offer facilities such as Upper Valley Haven. Fortunately, area partners have been able to provide the organization with what it needs to meet the demand.
Upper Valley Haven has also made a push to make the experience safer for those coming in for food or other essentials. To minimize the spread of the virus and better maintain social distancing practices, staff has moved away from the shopping experience that the indoor food shelf offered to a more controllable outdoor customer exchange. In an effort to keep people out of the sun and food such as produce and breads fresh, Redmond said that Blood’s Catering in White River Junction donated a tent for that precise purpose. Upper Valley Haven would then receive a grant from Upper Valley Strong and purchase the tent.
“We have made many adaptations to focus on safety,” Redmond said. “Residents come to Upper Valley Haven with the expectation that they will have a safe experience so we have done many things to increase the safety for our customers and volunteers.”
The organization has been the receiver of a number of kind acts by the community in support of their mission to help others, including King Arthur Flour providing the organization with a cook to prepare 40 meals a day available for people to pick up in the tent as well as financial contributions and food donations.
“We express our gratitude to the community,” Redmond said. “The community responded with donations of food and their time and an overall outpouring of support that shows in many different ways. For that we say thank you.”
Those interested in supporting Upper Valley Haven can call (802) 295-6500.