Upper Valley food pantries see increased number of visitors

  • Ashley Walker and her son Lawrence Renehan, 3, pick out vegetables at the food pantry run by LISTEN Community Services in Lebanon, N.H. on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023. Walker said she has four children at home and comes to the pantry once a week. The family lives in Lebanon. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news — Jennifer Hauck

  • Volunteer Nancy Flynn, of West Lebanon, N.H., left, and food pantry assistant Melissa VanNorden, of Hanover, N.H., fill food orders at the LISTEN Community Services food pantry in Lebanon, N.H., on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023. Visits at the pantry are up recently. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley news photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Volunteer Nickolas Newsome, of Ludlow, Vt., puts bread away at the LISTEN Community Services food pantry on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023 in Lebanon, N.H. Newsome and his mother had picked up donated bread from local retail stores and delivered it to the pantry. They both volunteer at the food pantry. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/12/2023 5:12:12 PM
Modified: 9/13/2023 1:10:21 PM

LEBANON — Area food pantries are reporting increases in the number of people accessing their services due to the expiration of pandemic-era assistance programs. SNAP benefits decreased, people lost Medicaid coverage, child tax credits expired and rental assistance programs ended. Coupled with last year’s high inflation and brutal winter energy bills, more people have started to turn to food pantries.

“It’s the first place where you can bend your budget,” said Angela Zhang, Listen Community Services’ Program Services Director. While people cannot pay less in rent, they can decrease what they spend on food and use food pantries to supplement nutritional needs. “Food is often the quickest form of assistance that people can access. The barriers for getting financial assistance for housing and utilities are going to be much higher, much more paperwork.”

There were 11,000 visits in fiscal year 2023 at the food pantry Listen Community Services runs in Lebanon. That’s up from 7,177 in fiscal year 2022 and 4,879 in fiscal year 2021. The food pantry, which is open Monday through Friday, averages 60 people a day and set a new record of 74 visitors one day in August, said Valerie Thompson, Listen’s food pantry manager.

Thompson said that in the past year, she’s seen “just a lot of new people every day” who are using the food pantry for the first time.

“We’re reaching farther away,” Thompson said, adding that she’s noticed more visitors from places such as Claremont, Newport and Cavendish.

During fiscal year 2019, there were just 1,747 visits to the food pantry, Zhang said. In fiscal year 2020, which included the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were 3,054 visits.

“It’s almost quadrupled,” Zhang said.

In some ways, Listen and other food pantry providers were preparing for their numbers to rise. Many people who visit Listen’s food pantry are drawn to produce and other healthy items, Thompson said.

“They really like our fresh produce because they can’t buy it at the stores because it’s too expensive,” Thompson said. “Our people care about nutrition.”

The Upper Valley Haven, which operates a food pantry five days a week in White River Junction, also has seen an increase in visitors, Executive Director Michael Redmond said.

In nearly all of the past 20 months, there were more than 1,000 visits to the food pantry, according to data compiled by Redmond. In 2021, there was an average of 1,173 monthly visits; in 2022, that rose to 1,334; so far in 2023, the average is 1,554.

“The peak day in June 2022 was visits by 86 households,” Redmond wrote. “In June 2023, four days exceeded 90. This was repeated in July and August, with several days exceeding 100 household visits.”

“One hundred used to be (a number) that we’d see only around Thanksgiving and Christmas, and now we’re see it four times a month, on average,” Redmond added during a phone interview.

In addition to seeing people who are using the food pantry for the first time, people who already use the food pantry are using it more frequently, Redmond said.

“They’re balancing budgets. Rent costs are higher,” he said. The Haven is also seeing a higher number of households made up of older adults.

Additionally, the Haven has seen an increase in the amount of money it has used to purchase food from wholesalers and grocery stores at discounts. From April to June 2022, the Haven spent around $19,000. In the same three-month period this year, the organization spent around $88,000.

“The cutback of the COVID aid for food has resulted in lower amounts of donations, and how we’re responding is returning to the budgets we had prior to COVID,” Redmond said, citing additional federal aid that went to national food programs to be distributed to the states to combat food insecurity that has since been discontinued. In the current fiscal year, Redmond anticipates that the Haven will spend at least $300,000 purchasing food. As a result, the Haven is increasing its fundraising, including trying to raise at least $200,000 in September, which is Hunger Action Month.

Friends of Mascoma, a Canaan-based nonprofit that assists people who live in Canaan, Dorchester, Enfield, Grafton and Orange, sees about 50 to 60 families per week who need food, said Kate Plumley Stewart, interim director of the organization, which has its main food pantry in Canaan and runs a mobile pantry in Enfield in the warmer months. That’s around a 20% increase over the previous fiscal year, she said. They started to see an increase in March when SNAP benefits decreased and that need has continued.

“Some of it’s going to be folks who are new to the area; some of it are folks who haven’t visited the pantry because they haven’t needed it,” Plumley Stewart said. “We’re seeing that we’re offsetting electric bills, health insurance.”

Among the items that are the most popular are side dishes including flavored rice, pasta meals and Hamburger Helper.

“People are coming to the pantry because they’re a working family, and they’re probably working pretty hard and longer hours,” Plumley Stewart said. “You need something that can go together relatively quickly. I think it’s important that we need to be able to feed people a balanced meal and is accessible in the time that they have.”

Windsor’s Trinity Evangelical Free Church, which operates a food pantry, has also seen more visitors.

“The past year, we’ve been bracing ourselves for it,” said Paul Voltmer, the pastor at Trinity Evangelical Free Church. The numbers really started to rise in the last six to eight months, he said. The number of weekly visitors used to be in the high 40s and now is in the high 60s, with some weeks in the 80s. During the last week of May, they had a record-high 91 visits.

“Separating out the pandemic, if I compare now to pre-pandemic times, we definitely feel the change in the economy,” Voltmer said. “We’re feeling the inflation for sure. We haven’t felt that in the eight years that I’ve been here.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.

 CORRECTION: Listen Community Services had 1,747 visitors in fiscal year 2019. Data included in Wednesday's story about an increase in food pantry use misstated Listen's food pantry visit numbers for 2019.

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