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December 08. 2012 8:36PM

Food pantries across the state feeling economic pinch


Mary Lou Huffling of the Fall Mountain Food Shelf in Alstead is one of many such food pantry coordinators across the state that is concerned about an increase in clients seeking help this holiday season. (MELANIE PLENDA)

ALSTEAD - The day before Thanksgiving, Mary Lou Huffling had 1,040 turkeys and dinner boxes to hand out to families in the Fall Mountain area. At the end of the day, there was one left. The day after Thanksgiving, she said that a young man, in his 30s maybe, with three kids came to her looking for some help.

"He was all apologetic and out of work and needed some food," Huffling said. "He felt bad coming. I asked him in conversation if he had had Thanksgiving and he said, 'No, no we didn't have anything because we couldn't afford it.' I said, 'Would you like to have a late Thanksgiving?' So we gave him the last turkey and the last dinner box and he was just thrilled."

For 30 years, the Fall Mountain Food Shelf has giving out both Thanksgiving and Christmas food boxes to needy families in the area. But higher prices on everything, along with extended unemployment, is resulting in a deluge of clients for food pantries across the state.

Fall Mountain, like other such facilities, is scrambling to fulfill families' holiday needs this year, but it hasn't been easy.

Fall Mountain, which services Acworth, Alstead, Charlestown, North Charlestown, Langdon, Walpole, North Walpole and occasionally Marlow and Unity, is part of the Monadnock Food Coalition, a loose collective of food pantries and agencies that help low-income families in the region. The Community Kitchen, the food pantry and soup kitchen in Keene, hosts the coalition.

"We're not a high-income area," said Huffling, who runs the Fall Mountain Food Shelf, one of the harder-hit pantries in the state. "It just seems like we have a lot of people unemployed. A lot of the elderly here, they worked on farms and on the mica mines and the factories. They never made big money and so their Social Security and stuff is not high. And then the cost of living and everything has gone up, so we're finding a lot of elderly having to use the food pantry."

At close to 1,000 families per month showing up at their doors for food, The Fall Mountain Food Shelf in downtown Alstead has seen a 20 percent increase over last year in the number of people they are helping, Huffling said.

She said the families they are helping are out of work, and have been for a while. Or, she said, they are working but are not making very much. She also said these families, most of whom have to drive 30 minutes to Keene or Claremont for work, are taking a hit with the increase in gas prices.

While the economy is playing a big role in the increase, Huffling is worried that a decrease in monetary donations this year will seriously affect the food pantry's ability to get Christmas baskets out to their families.

Phoebe Bray, executive director of The Community Kitchen in Keene, said unlike her facility, many of the other food pantries in the region are not nonprofits and can't solicit money.

The Community Kitchen does the collecting through the coalition. Money raised is used exclusively for Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets. While she didn't have exact numbers, Bray said this year donations were down, partly because while people can afford to give a little food, fewer can afford to give lump sums of cash.

"We didn't have as much cash raised this year as we were last year," Bray said. "But here in Keene, we were able to buy some food for the coalition . We are planning to do it for Christmas (baskets). And we will give as much as we can. But the numbers (of clients) that Mary Lou (Huffling) has up there are just staggering."

Huffling is convinced that, based on what she is seeing, even with the coalition's help, they won't have enough.

"The coalition is going to try to get the turkeys," she said. "But it doesn't look like they are going to have enough to get them."

She is hoping that people will be able to donate protein, such as turkey, ham and chicken. And though Fall Mountain doesn't have a lot of freezer space, she said if people interested in donating just called her and let her know they would be bringing one of those things by Friday, Dec. 21, the day before baskets go out, that would be a tremendous help.

"People are counting on these baskets," Huffling said. "A lot of people have signed up for them. It's an important part of the spirit of Christmas."

Going across the state, it's a mixed bag when it comes to donations

Across the board, pantry officials said the need is up anywhere from 7 to 15 percent. Bray said they've seen a seven-percent uptick, mostly of people hit by the economy.

"You know, the financial gurus say you should have at least three months' savings tucked away. That's fine, but what happense if you are then unemployed for seven?" Bray asked. "We're seeing an uptick on that particular kind of client. And also we have seniors who come in and their savings are exhausted. You know, if you've been retired 25 years, who could have predicted $3.50 a gallon for gas?"

Both Keene - which serves all of Cheshire County - and the Listen Community Services in Lebanon, which serves the whole Upper Valley, said they've seen more clients, but they've also seen a lot of donations.

They said they've been lucky that businesses and schools have really stepped up their food drives - including one earlier this month - not just during the holiday season, but going back to the summer.

Raymond Pecor, the food program manager for Listen, said the Upper Valley has been very generous, which is good, considering the challenges people are facing, including he said, the drought out west, which is expected to raise the cost of food.

"I think people are being more generous this year," he said. "I think people are being more conscious and aware."

In Nashua and on the Seacoast, officials said they also are seeing an increase of clients.

Rosemarie Dykeman the social services director with the Salvation Army Food Pantry in Nashua said they are seeing people working multiple jobs but still aren't making enough to pay for rent, utilities and food.

"We are getting people who've waited as long as they could before coming to get food," she said. "But they are just really struggling."


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