Editorial: Laudable Efforts on Food Security, and a Store in Trouble

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Having an accessible and affordable source of nutritious food is vital to the health of any person, and central to the health of any community. Commendable efforts on this front continue to be a staple of Upper Valley life, especially during the growing season, but recent events are reminding us — again — that the system is fragile.

Consider the line forming in the parking lot of the White River Junction VA Medical Center one morning late last month. As staff writer Nora Doyle-Burr reported, the crowd had gathered for the regular monthly visit of the Vermont Foodbank’s VeggieVanGo program, which has been delivering free fresh produce to communities around the state for three years. About 250 people usually show up at the VA events, and on this day they took home some 5,000 pounds of food.

In addition to the VA, VeggieVanGo also visits sites such as Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center in Windsor and the Orange County Parent Child Center in Tunbridge. The program visits hospitals, Foodbank CEO John Sayles told Doyle-Burr, because “that’s where people are,” but it also targets communities where there are few grocery stores and where people may not have easy access to fresh produce.

In a similar vein, the Co-op Food Stores locations in Hanover, Lebanon and White River Junction (along with seven other grocery stores elsewhere in New Hampshire) have joined a program to give people who receive food assistance a 50 percent discount — up to $10 a day — on fresh produce. Customers who use EBT cards provided through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, will receive the discount when they ask for it before swiping their cards at the register. Called “Double Up Food Bucks,” the program runs through the end of the year and is supported by the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation and several other charitable foundations in New Hampshire.

As Edward Fox, the Co-op’s general manager, and board President William Craig wrote in a Forum letter earlier this year, programs like these help provide a source of affordable, nutritious locally grown food and reduce food insecurity, and they also help boost the local economy. According to the Census Bureau and USDA, for every $1 in new benefits, SNAP generates $1.80 in economic activity.

Which brings us to the Lebanon Village Marketplace, the struggling grocery store in downtown Lebanon — in fact, the only grocery store in downtown Lebanon. Tucked into a lot next to the fire station, across the street from Colburn Park and, critically, within walking distance — or scooter distance — of the Rogers House senior residence, the Lebanon Village Marketplace isn’t a superstore by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s certainly more than a chips-and-soda convenience store. Before the shelves began emptying in recent weeks, a shopper could complete pretty much any grocery list there.

But now, as staff writers John Lippman and Tim Camerato have reported, the future of the store is very much in doubt — as it was more than a decade ago, when it was known as Butson’s. After Butson’s shut down in 2003, those who believed having a grocery store downtown was important got active. “We had all this stuff going on,” Church Street resident Ruth Emery told Lippman. “The City Council got involved. We had meetings. There was talk of maybe getting a block grant and different things that could maybe help get a store.” It took two years, but Ritchard Bill eventually stepped up and opened the Lebanon Village Marketplace in 2005.

If Bill now decides it’s time to close up shop — the employee schedule didn’t extend past yesterday and the City Council was scheduled to discuss the issue at its meeting last night — it’s not like there won’t be a grocery store in Lebanon. On the contrary. The city hosts a cornucopia of supermarkets. But for those who live in the center of the city, especially if they have transportation or mobility issues, closing the Lebanon Village Marketplace will leave them in something of a food desert. “I mean, it’s kind of a tragedy for Lebanon to look at the bare shelves and contemplate not having a grocery store downtown,” Rob Taylor, executive director of the Lebanon Area Chamber of Commerce, told Camerato.

Despite living in the richest country on the planet at the most prosperous time in human history, making sure everyone has something good to eat is an ongoing challenge.

Food for thought.