SANBORNTON — 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 percent 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 percent, 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 percent. At the Salvation Army’s food pantry, the decline hit 60 percent 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.

She said the pantry encouraged local consumers to rely on its free supply and use their newfound resources for other financial obligations, without much luck. She believes the New Hampshire Food Bank’s mobile pantry, which visits destinations statewide, became an anonymous way to get free food. “The stigma of using a food pantry is a huge, huge obstacle,” Blaisdell said. People will travel “miles and miles” from home to patronize the mobile pantries, she said. “You could go and your neighbors won’t see you going.”

The government’s COVID relief has trickled through New Hampshire. “If a family of four gets a check for $5,600, some people may not be thinking how they can stretch that out,” said Emond at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central New Hampshire. “You hope that people’s situations are better. When that runs out, are they going to return? We have to see how long this goes on.”

At the end of May, the federal government will stop funding the USDA’s Farmers to Families program, which supplied the New Hampshire Food Bank’s mobile food pantries that have visited locations from Nashua to Colebrook and Conway to Claremont. Nancy Mellit, director of the food bank, which is run by Catholic Charities, said private donors have come forward to keep the mobile units running. But instead of making three trips a week, they will serve two destinations each week during June, July and August until they resume three trips a week during fall. The mobile pantry will visit Laconia on Tuesday, June 8 from noon to 2 p.m., in the parking lot at Lakes Region Community College.

There are no income-eligibility requirements to receive the mobile pantry’s boxes of free food — one to three, depending on the number of people in the household. Recipients are simply asked which community they’re from.

“We feel if you’re willing to sit in line for an hour or longer, and not know what food is being distributed, you probably need the food,” Mellit said. The boxes always contain milk, yogurt, cheese, produce and protein, such as frozen cooked chicken, meatballs or hot dogs.

The New Hampshire Food Bank, which supplies over 400 pantries statewide as well as the mobile units, has experienced a much slighter drop in demand compared to the individual pantries across the state, Mellit said. Social service experts believe stimulus checks, and boosted unemployment and SNAP or food stamp benefits during COVID have subtracting from food pantry use. But increased SNAP benefits will cease in the fall, and Mellit predicts pantry numbers will begin to rebound then. The approach of winter typically ushers in a seasonal spike. “We call it ‘heat or eat,’” said Mellit. As heating costs rise, more lower-income clients will seek free sources of food.

Emerson at CAP is in charge of distributing large quantities of commodities from USDA to pantries statewide. He said pantry reliance varies by location and the availability of other local options. Many local pantries, including in Berlin, experienced the drop off in use registered statewide, of roughly 30 percent or higher. Pantries are generally volunteer-run, and days and hours of operation vary, which affects convenience.

A critical role of the NH Food Bank is to stock the state’s smaller pantries, which collect food from its Manchester warehouse. The bank provides the state’s pantries with 1.7 to 1.8 million pounds of food each month at low or no cost. During 2020 it distributed 17.7 million pounds of food, compared to 14 million in 2019. Reliance on food panties is generally higher where employment is lower, seasonal or less secure, she said.

In that way, the North Country and rural pockets of the state are most vulnerable. In Laconia, the NH Food Bank’s mobile food pantry served 483 households, consisting of 1,605 individuals, in December 2020. In Gorham, the mobile pantry served 596 households including 1,794 people — compared to 201 households in Concord, with 646 individuals. In Colebrook, its most remote and least populous destination, the mobile food pantry served 356 households containing 1,064 people.

'A social thing'

Perched on a spot with a breathtaking view, the First Fruits Food Pantry is located seven miles from the center of town, in a setting that’s a popular destination for picnics, watching Fourth of July fireworks and photographing Lake Winnisquam with the Ossipee and Sandwich ranges in the distance and Mt. Chocorua poking through the haze.

Over the years, First Fruits has also become a meeting place, a social oasis that continues socially-distanced now, with boxes of food hauled out by wagon down a ramp to parked cars. In nice weather, customers arrive around noon to chat before the pantry opens from 4 to 6 p.m. on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

“This is a social thing for so many,” said Presby, the pantry’s director who has lived in Sanbornton for 57 years. “They get to know each other. Some might be neighbors who never get to talk to one another.”

He said in Sanbornton and other rural areas, there’s a tradition of Yankee self-reliance, and planning ahead for lean times. “In our area, people are savvy and have a few things in the freezer. And most are not destitute the way some people are” in larger cities, Presby said.

The pantry started at the Old Town Sanbornton Town Hall in 2005, then built the present building behind Mountain View Church in 2007. Presby became director in 2013.

Like many local pantries across the country, eligibility follows state and federal income guidelines, which means a two-person household living on roughly $42,000 annually or less can receive the free food.

The bounty is there to be had. Fresh Fruits has five to six freezers stocked with meat, and fresh produce stored in the refrigerator. Through the Fresh Rescue program with Hannaford in Franklin, volunteers pick up fruits and vegetable, day-old baked good and meats that hit the expiration date and are frozen. There are rows of shelves stacked with canned goods, bags of rice and pasta and boxes of cereal from oatmeal to Rice Krispies, Cheerios, Cap’n Crunch Berries and Coco Puffs.

“I just wish there were more retired and elderly people who would jump in and get assistance,” Presby said. “We deliver to people who can’t get to the pantry. There’s an abundance of food and not enough takers.”

He wonders whether the stigma of accepting donations intended for the needy is the primary driver keeping needy customers away. That thinking “does affect people. It gets to the point of ‘That’s for the poor. I’m not poor.’ But they do qualify to have help. The stigma, that bothers people.

“We have a whole segment of people who are in that retirement age,” including two sets of grandparents who are raising grandchildren and use the First Fruits pantry, Presby said. “The stigma part is thinking I’m taking a handout that somebody else needs. They think it’s for people sitting on the corner collecting money, when they’re economically just a little bit above that.

“Everybody coming here has some kind of financial problem,” Presby added. “We have a tremendous amount of women in their 70s and 80s who are living on social security. Then we have young people who are out of work. I wish there would be more of them coming, including the younger people who are having difficulties.”

The pantry is open from 4 to 6 p.m. the first Wednesday of each month for Sanbornton residents only, and for anyone who lives in Sanbornton, Tilton, Northfield and Belmont on the third Wednesday. “The able-bodied people jump out and throw it in their vehicles,” Presby said. “The little old ladies, we take care of them. They couldn’t lift one of these boxes if they wanted to,” which weigh 30 to 40 pounds.

St. Vincent de Paul's Carrignan and others hope publicity will help overcome any food pantry stigma, and boost numbers. “Older people are usually more sensitive than younger people,” when it comes to asking for help. Comparatively, “younger people don’t seem to mind asking and expecting,” she said. 

Carrignan doesn’t believe a lingering fear of contracting COVID is keeping people away, including families who have used the St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry for decades. "We are so careful. They don’t come in contact with us at all. We don’t even handle the same piece of paper.” Orders are slipped into plastic sleeves, then slid under the door for volunteers to fill out. “They’re really, really safe coming here,” Carrignan said.

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