Food pantries fear pinch from inflation, supply shortages

  • Debbie Sulca doesn’t have a car and says the options for groceries within walking distance are out of her budget. valley news

  • Debbie Sulca, left, browses food available in a refrigerator at the Hanover Community Food Pantry in the Church of Christ at Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H., on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. Sulca said she enjoys experimenting in her kitchen with the fresh produce and other sometimes unfamiliar ingredients she gets at the pantry. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

  • Grabill, right, provides a bag to Karen White for some items from the Hanover Community Food Pantry at the church in Hanover.

Valley News 
Published: 11/29/2021 4:47:21 PM

The price of milk and yogurt has gone up. Cereal, too. Meat has been harder to come by.

As inflation is hitting everyday staples for grocery buyers, food pantries are entering their busiest time of year. And that time might be even busier with other expenses spiking as well.

“There’s certainly some areas of the cost of business that are impacting us, but the larger concern is how the rising cost of living, particularly in areas that are essential — food, heating oil — (that) are impacting the people who rely on the Haven for support,” said Michael Redmon, executive director of the Upper Valley Haven. “We’re anticipating that as families try to balance their household budgets we will see more people coming to use the Haven food shelf to help out so they won’t have to spend as much in the grocery stores.”

That’s already being reflected in the Mascoma Valley, where the Friends of Mascoma Foundation is located in Canaan. Eula Kozma, executive director of the nonprofit organization, said more families started visiting them for food at the end of October and early November.

“I think a lot of the state and federal resources have sunset,” Kozma said. “Groceries, household items, everything is up, so I think maybe more folks that were on the cusp ... for whatever reason some combination of things tipped them kind of to needing more assistance.”

That’s been the case for Karen White, of White River Junction, who stopped by the Hanover Food Pantry with her neighbor Annette Wright on Saturday morning at the Church of Christ at Dartmouth College.

White said her boyfriend of 17 years died in January after contracting COVID-19 at a skilled nursing facility.

“It’s been rough going from two incomes to pay bills. It makes it hard,” said White, who was pleased to find toilet paper and deli meat at the pantry. “The prices of everything is going up so bad.”

The Hanover pantry opened last November. It started with folks offering items out of the back of their cars in the church parking lot and now occupies a room in the basement, where natural light from windows illuminates shelves.

This week, eight people stopped by to select items including produce, dairy, meat and baked goods, in addition to dry good staples like beans and cereal. Household items are also in high demand.

“If we have liquid soap or laundry detergent or adult pull-ups, it just goes off the shelf,” said Cinny Bensen, one of the organizers of the food pantry, during an interview Friday.

“I’m not sure we had any idea how sustainable it was,” Bensen said of the pandemic-born pantry. “We knew there was a need but would people find us, would people feel comfortable, were we open at the right day at the right time, were we offering what people needed? There were so many questions.”

In time, they’ve developed a following among community members including graduate students who attend Dartmouth College. Among those students is Debbie Sulca, a first-year graduate student from Los Angeles.

Sulca does not have a car and her nearest grocery store is the Coop, “which can get very expensive very quickly,” she said. “I really like the food pantry because they have a lot of fresh produce.”

By visiting the food pantry, Sulca has been able to stretch her budget and try out new ingredients to cook with — such as squashes — that she hadn’t used.

“It’s been a great creative outlet for me that brings me a lot of health,” she said. “This has been a big help for sure.”

Like many smaller food pantries in the area, the Hanover Food Pantry has support from the Upper Valley Haven. While federal programs have been generous, grocery stores continue to donate food and the Vermont Foodbank has continued to supply items, Upper Valley Haven staff pick up donations from as far as Brattleboro and Barre, Vt.

“We’re spending more each week and I’m estimating that we’ll spend $5,000 more on diesel fuel than we did last year, just the fuel increase and driving the same distance,” Redmond said.

Their cost of milk is up 10% and cereal is up 5%.

Prior to the pandemic, about 10% of the Upper Valley was food-insecure, meaning they worried about affording food. During the pandemic, that number rose to 30% and is now around 15% to 20%, Redmond said.

“There’s still many people that are food-insecure in the Upper Valley,” he said.

Last Monday, 125 households visited the Haven’s food pantry and, while that is higher than the typical 50 to 70, it is part of a usual pattern of the holiday season and winter months.

Supply shortages are showing up in interesting ways, said Kozma, of the Friends of Mascoma Foundation.

That pantry gets much of its food from the New Hampshire Food Bank and the USDA.

One of their most sought-after items has been snacks, which they distribute to their food pantries and schools in the area.

Usually, Kozma can order three large boxes of mixed snacks and on a good week could receive as many as nine. After the school year started, the supply changed.

“It just hasn’t been an option,” Kozma said. The community, including businesses and Boy Scout troops, have stepped up by organizing snack food drives. “We’ve been able to piece it together.”

Meat has been a challenge in Charlestown, which is part of the larger Fall Mountain Food Shelf in Alstead.

The Charlestown Food Shelf typically gets meat once a month through government surplus, said Dick Westney, who oversees the food shelf.

“This last time ... we got fish sticks and that was it,” he said. “We didn’t have any other type of meat or anything like that.”

Other food pantries have pitched in by sharing supplies. Charlestown also gets meat from area grocery stores.

The pantry has bucked the trend in terms of the number of clients during the pandemic.

Westney expected numbers to pick up but the reverse happened. They currently serve around 85 families per month while before the pandemic it was 120 to 125.

“It kind of baffled us. Our numbers went down,” he said. “With the numbers down, the food was still coming in, so we were able to stock up a good pile of canned goods, dried goods, stuff like that.”

Back in Hanover on Saturday, visitors perused the shelves, refrigerator and coolers for items to add to their reusable bags.

Some shop just for themselves, while others shop for multiple families. They were assisted by volunteers including Vassiki Chauhan, who greeted shoppers warmly.

“Being a graduate student, I know how things get tight,” said Chauhan, who recently finished up her doctorate in cognitive neuroscience.

Prior to the Hanover Food Pantry, the church had a small closet where they kept food for those who needed it, said Rob Grabill, associate pastor at the church.

The weekly Hanover Food Pantry has been a welcome addition.

“There’s food insecurity everywhere,” Grabill said. “What’s nice is the stigma is eroding. If you need food, you need food.”

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