NH food pantries rely on neighbors helping neighbors

New Hampshire Union Leader
November 21. 2012 2:41AM

Sue Willey of Hooksett sorts food donations while volunteering at the Hooksett Community Food Pantry on Tuesday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)
After more than four years of economic doldrums, community-based food pantries are still being called on to help people. This Thanksgiving season will be no different.

"It's been a very busy four years," said Barbara Brennan, director of the Hooksett food pantry of the period since 2008's economic crash. "We have a very generous community."

William Duryea helps coordinate the Caring Cupboard program, a mobile food pantry that provides food to seniors in the Nashua and Manchester areas. He said it's uplifting to bring the food provided by members of the community to people who need it.

"It's amazing, when you spend so much time in the office coordinating volunteers you lose track of what is happening when the food is delivered," Duryea said. "When the delivery is made, they are so happy."

Local food pantries say the knowledge that people are helping their neighbors is a big factor in being able to help families in their towns put food on the table -- and do it with dignity.

The pantries have several sources of food. Many buy from the New Hampshire Food Bank in Manchester, which provides food and charges local pantries a "handling fee" to cover delivery costs.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also pitches in with food that goes beyond the USDA cheese and peanut butter that were mainstays of government food programs a couple of generations ago.

"We get frozen chicken, soup, canned peaches, rice, green beans, corn flakes," said Bob Adams of the Community Service Agency in Laconia, which helps supply food pantries in Merrimack and Belknap counties.

The Hannaford Bros. supermarket chain is lauded by several food pantry leaders for its efforts, donating food products being cycled out of inventory.

"They are excellent, very generous," said Charlie Sherman of Manchester's New Horizons.

"Hannaford grocery is amazing for us," said Adams of Laconia Community Action.

Food drives

The pantries say cash is often the most helpful donation because it allows them to target their inventories to what families actually need and to arrange for such items as meat and fresh vegetables.

But food drives still provide a lot of food.

Fidelity Investments conducted a food drive at its Merrimack call center.

"We had 1,600 items donated from the people at Fidelity," Duryea said.

Goffstown takes contributions during food drives, such as the nationwide drive run by a cooperative effort of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. But smaller donations help as well.

"We have drop boxes in two grocery stores in town and like many organizations, we participate in a number of drives throughout the year, such as the Scouting for Food or the Postal Workers drive," said David Grenier, president of the group that runs the Goffstown food pantry. "Around the holidays, all the schools do a (canned goods) drive for us."

Hooksett families are also assured of a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving Day.

"We handed out 98 food baskets plus turkey in addition to about 50 at the pantry for our clients," Brennan said.

Cash, volunteers

It takes more than donations during the holiday season or some food donations during the bleak days of February to keep food pantries running. It also takes cash.

"There are certain items we run out of, and whatever money we get we can go and purchase food and stay on top of what we are running low on," Brennan said. "Fruit and canned fruit are the items we run out of the most."

Manchester's Sherman said cash donations can often be leveraged more than the price of individual food donations.

In Goffstown, the pantry relies on members of the community, acting as individuals or as part of a charitable group.

"Probably 99 percent of it is just family contributions to us," Grenier said. "Occasionally a civic organization will decide we are the charity they (are targeting) that year and will give us a big check, but we do most of it through individual private donations."

In Hooksett, a resident made a donation to cover the cost of installing air conditioning needed to keep food fresh for summer distribution. The food pantry itself, in the basement of Hooksett Town Hall, was an Eagle Scout project organized by John Brennan, son of the pantry director.

People that run the pantries say it's been a difficult few years, a time in which the rewards often come when people help out other people in town they don't even know.

Sometimes, economic circumstances mean people who were once volunteers become clients. Manchester's Sherman notes that many times people who have been helped later become volunteers.

"It goes both ways," he said.

In Hooksett, volunteers take extra effort to make sure that the people seeking help are respected.

"It takes a lot for people to admit they need help, that's the human element," Brennan said. "We want to be able to help people and don't want them to feel bad about the situation; we truly want to help people."

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Bill Smith may be reached at wsmith@unionleader.com.

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