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‘Devastating’: 1 in 7 in NH don’t know where next meal will come from

Hadley Barndollar

One in seven Granite Staters do not know where their next meal will come from, according to new estimates from the New Hampshire Food Bank.

That’s an additional 55,500 people who are now food insecure as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in a total of more than 181,000 food insecure people across New Hampshire – a 69% increase. 

“I don’t see an end in sight right now for the people we support,” said Deb Anthony, executive director at Gather food pantry, the Seacoast’s largest hunger relief organization. “You’ve got the holidays, the heating season is coming up, the government and whether or not there’s going to be any kind of stimulus for people. It’s going to be a rough winter.”

Anthony called the ongoing – and growing – impacts of COVID-19 on hunger “devastating.” 

According to a May report by the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School, titled “Innovation in Food Access amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” with rising unemployment rates and closure of critical nutrition support sites like school cafeterias, “food pantries and food banks are experiencing unprecedented increases in volume.”

And that was established prior to the latest surge in COVID-19 cases nationwide, where in New Hampshire, there is currently a record number of hospitalizations. On Sunday, the state reported 491 new coronavirus cases, surpassing a grim 20,000 total cases.

“It’s really hitting,” said Tammy Joslyn, executive director of Operation Blessing in Portsmouth. “We’ve kind of glided through since March, we had a beautiful summer, and boom, fall came.”

In larger states, like Texas, for example, food distribution sites have seen thousands of cars lined up for miles in recent weeks. There is certainly a “wow factor” in seeing those images, Anthony said, “but proportionately, ratio wise, there are the same number of people lining up to get food in small towns all over New England.”

“It’s the same pain that people down the street from you are feeling,” Anthony said. “Just because you don’t see it in the big flash on the TV at night … it’s here. People are waiting Monday morning at our door to get in.”

On Monday at Operation Blessing, which offers a variety of assistance for vulnerable individuals and families on the Seacoast, Joslyn stood among a recently-stocked pantry room – rows and rows of condensed soups, canned green beans, beets and sweet corn, boxed rice, jars of peanut butter, Chef Boyardee and quick oats. 

By the end of the week, Joslyn said, the room will be more than half empty. 

“We’re seeing a lot more people out of work and a lot more need,” she said. 

Joslyn specifically noted the situation of three families they serve who work for a local fast food chain. Their livelihoods are subject to the restaurant’s frequent, temporary closures as a result of COVID-19 cases. Filing for unemployment for those instances has proved challenging, Joslyn said, and the unpredictable periods of closure make it hard to keep bills paid and food consistently on the table. 

Last week, when Operation Blessing executed its annual Thanksgiving meal delivery around the Seacoast, there were 402 baskets, Joslyn said, compared to 196 just a few years ago. 

Offering a “snap shot in time,” Anthony said in October 2019, Gather distributed 73,000 pounds of food to 2,500 people. Oct. 2020 saw 186,200 pounds of food and 6,500 people, representing a 60% increase over one year. 

Since March, the Manchester-based New Hampshire Food Bank, which serves more than 400 agencies across the state and supplies approximately half of the food those agencies distribute, has conducted 50 mobile food pantries to date, providing 19,733 households – or 51,815 individuals – with more than 1.3 million pounds of food.

During December alone, the NHFB will host 19 drive-through mobile food pantries across the state in Laconia, Claremont, Gorham, Colebrook, Plymouth and Manchester. The food bank receives no federal or state funding for food distribution, but did get one-time funding through the federal CARES Act.

Joslyn said Operation Blessing is serving more than 50 families via its drive-up pantry, and more than 100 families through its once-a-week mobile pantry. The organization does weekly grocery deliveries to vulnerable seniors, who are a significant portion of its clientele.

“I can’t see us stopping (the deliveries) because those are increasing,” Joslyn said. “We’ve had people from Elwyn Park to Bow Street (in Portsmouth). Not just public housing.” 

At Saint Vincent de Paul in Exeter, Executive Director Molly Zirillo said their homebound senior delivery program has tripled since the pandemic began.

She noted the region’s low-income housing capacity and services for the homeless were already maxed out “before anyone heard the word COVID.” 

“We just want to make sure we’re getting as much food to as many people because the whole world has gone sideways right now,” Zirillo said. 

Grace Community Church’s Rochester and Farmington pantries and food programs are on track to give out over 50,000 pounds of food by the end of 2020 — more than ever before. Church outreach director Cheriene Painter said recently that COVID-19 has exacerbated the need “dramatically.”

Strafford County residents have also created new take-as-you-need food cabinets in both Rochester (69 Wakefield St.) and Somersworth (2 Laurier St.) – two Seacoast cities with high numbers of low-income families and rates of food insecurity. 

The NHFB estimates between 21-23% of children are living in food insecure environments because of COVID-19, based on Feeding America’s annual “Map the Meal Gap” study and subsequent projections of local coronavirus impact.

School districts throughout the region are working to address the exacerbated youth hunger through breakfast and lunch distributions, while schools operate largely in remote settings due to the coronavirus.

Shortly after Rochester’s schools shifted to remote in early November, over 400 families had requested the district regularly provide them with over 900 meals. The demand has continued in the weeks since, but so too has the fact that roughly half of the meals have gone unclaimed at the bus stops Rochester is using to deliver the meals, district officials confirmed Monday.

“Our students are potentially not eating,” Rochester Superintendent Kyle Repucci said in an interview last month, stating the thought keeps him up at night. “We want to make sure they have access to the resources to be healthy.”

Not far across the state border, in southern Maine, staff at Footprints Food Pantry – which serves residents in Kittery, Kittery Point and Eliot – recently said they’ve seen their clientele numbers return to the “highest levels,” following a lull at the end of the summer which they attributed to the weekly $600 in federal unemployment benefits and eviction moratoriums. 

Footprints Director Megan Shapiro Ross said the pantry is “ordering more produce than you can imagine, and we can’t keep it on the table.”

Small food pantries, especially those in rural areas, have hit capacity across the country despite the coronavirus-prompted revelation that the nation is depending on them to keep populations fed. That shouldn’t be accepted, Anthony said, but rather, probed.

“Our systems are not created to handle this level of need,” she said. “I hope as a community, as towns, and a state and Northeast and country, we really take a look at how quickly hunger was the first thing to break down.”

How to help: 

New Hampshire Food Bank –

Operation Blessing –

Gather –

St. Vincent de Paul Exeter –

Footprints Food Pantry –