A bounty without enough takers

The Laconia Daily Sun
Published: 5/20/2021 4:39:00 PM

They are co-angels in the battle against food insecurity.

“Angel Steve,” an anonymous donor from Laconia, drops off boxes once or twice a month at the First Fruits Food Pantry, located in a white clapboard cabin behind Mountain View Church at the base of Steele Hill Road.

Bob Presby, 80, the pantry’s director, does much of the heavy lifting with a shifting army of other volunteers. Twice a month the retired carpenter and phone line repairman drives to Manchester to haul 600-800 pounds of fresh produce, pasta, meat and other basics from the New Hampshire Food Bank to stock the pantry’s trove. Once a month, he drives to Concord to collect 1,200 pounds of USDA staples to help replenish First Fruit’s shelves. Combined, the bounty feeds those in need in Sanbornton, Tilton, Northfield and occasionally Belmont, which has two food pantries of its own.

It’s an ongoing blessing, and an altruistic mission that focuses on helping those less fortunate, including elderly people who are averse to accepting handouts or help. And surprisingly, in the wake of the economic hardships of COVID, the pantry – along with many others statewide – has simultaneously experienced a boon in food supply and a significant drop in usage – a decline which confounds many in the food pantry business.

Fresh Fruits’ clientele has dropped by almost 50% from before the pandemic, Presby said. “With everything the government has been doing, client participation is way down.” And that appears to be the norm statewide. Some pantries have called First Fruits, asking if the rural pantry needs food because they have more than they can store or hand out.

It’s a situation of abundance, without enough customers.

A statewide challenge

Statewide, local food pantries – which are social service mainstays in many rural areas – are experiencing drops in usage of 20 to 35%, sometimes higher, according to estimates given to pantries by Randy Emerson, director of emergency food assistance for the Community Action Program, Inc. which includes CAP satellites statewide. In Laconia, at the St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry, the decline has been 40%. At the Salvation Army’s food pantry, the decline hit 60% last month.

Since Major Mike Davis, commander of the Laconia Salvation Army, arrived in August 2020, the charity has seen a steady drop in customers coming to collect free groceries. In April 2021, only nine people showed up, a precipitous drop from previous years. “We are not sure why, but in speaking with other agencies, they too are seeing low numbers,” Davis said.

The drop is only partly explained by local help from GOT LUNCH! Laconia, which delivered free groceries from late March through August 2020 to local families whose children receive free or reduced lunch at school.

The Laconia Boys and Girls Club has provided drive-through dinners-to-go on weekdays for five to six years. After a spike in area residents lined up for evening take-out meals during late fall 2020, the numbers have returned to pre-COVID levels, with an average of 80 meals served each weeknight, said Chris Emond, chief executive of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central New Hampshire, which includes clubs in Laconia and Concord.

At St. Vincent de Paul, the steep decline in food pantry use has continued since COVID, but the downward trend started in 2016, according to the charity’s records. The number of people served in the first half of this year roughly equals the number served in 2009.

“I wish we knew why. We just scratch our heads,” said Jo Carrignan, president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Because of regular donations, including from Shaw’s and Hannaford supermarkets in Gilford, “the food is in abundance, including beautiful fresh produce” and baked goods – which, if uncollected, are donated to feed people experiencing homeless at Isaiah 61 Cafe, or thrown out. The drop in customers is perplexing. “We can’t figure it out,” Carrignan said. “If you could see our warehouse, we’re stocked. People can get food and save their dollars to pay rent.”

No questions asked

During the pantry’s hours, noon-2 p.m. on Mondays and 6-8 p.m. on Wednesdays, fresh produce is available in boxes outside the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store and Food Pantry building on Union Avenue for anyone to collect – no forms to fill out or questions asked.

Carrignan worries about local children not getting enough healthy food during the day, starting with breakfast, especially while they are home and not receiving meals or snacks at school.

For pantries, the untapped supply is becoming an embarrassment of riches. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is purchasing better-quality meats to distribute because of having more money to spend. Pantries in some cases are doubling the food they hand out, and food storage is becoming a problem for some, Carrignan said.

“They encourage us strongly not to refuse anything,” said McKee Jack, manager of the St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry. “We do have lots of refrigerators and freezers,” but other pantries don’t have that luxury. To keep food moving out, St. Vincent de Paul is giving a smaller number of people twice as much to take home, and allowing them to come twice a month instead of once, as well as weekly to pick up fresh produce in boxes outside during pantry hours.

Like other nonprofit pantries, many of which are run by local volunteer organizations or churches, St. Vincent de Paul is grateful for its regular donors in the Lakes Region. Last month the pantry’s boxes included a $25 gift card for Shaw’s, after the Gilford store donated 226 of them.

It’s a common scenario at New Hampshire food pantries, depending on local resources and the generosity of private citizens and stores. But a free food supply that exceeds current, active demand is a dilemma statewide, according to state and local food pantry directors, most of whom are volunteers.

“We’re all in the same boat. They’re getting all this donated food and have to move it out,” Carrignan said. The income threshold for qualifying is looser than most people think. “We’ve never had to turn anyone away because they earn too much money.”

 From October 2020  through April 2021, the St. Vincent de Paul pantry served 750 households including 2,112 individuals — a 40 percent drop from the same period last year.

Even at the Life Ministries Food Pantry in Wolfeboro, which experienced a four percent uptick in meals provided during COVID, use has trailed off in 2021. Is it a sign of too much for too few, or a change best explained by an abundance of COVID-related resources that will eventually or abruptly end? Pantries worry that the halcyon days of stimulus checks and increased unemployment benefits may be a false high that will tumble, resulting in even greater need.

During COVID’s shutdowns in 2020, the number of families serviced each month by Twin Rivers Interfaith Food Pantry in Franklin sank from 300 to 159, and just last week they returned to near-normal, said Daisy Blaisdell, the pantry’s board president. She attributes the past decline to stimulus checks, and extra unemployment and food stamp benefits —supports that are now stopping or petering out, with unquantifiable results.

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