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Upper Valley food pantries adjust to COVID-19 demands

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    As Enfield Police Chief Roy Holland, middle, and Officer Mike Crate load groceries into her car, Dorothy Braley, of Canaan, N.H., tells them it is her last time for weekly food at the police station in Enfield, N.H., on April 7, 2020. Braley is a dental assistant and her hours have been cut back to one day a week during the COVID crisis -- her unemployment check had just started arriving. "This has been a massive help," she said of the food for herself and her husband. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news — Geoff Hansen

  • Enfield Police Officer Mike Crate, left, and Chief Roy Holland separate apples into bags for the weekly food distribution at the police station in Enfield, N.H., on April 7, 2020. Holland said 34 bags with three days of food for 48 people were handed out, which is part of the Friends of Mascoma food shelf's Tuesday deliveries in Canaan, Dorchester, Enfield and Grafton. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Geoff Hansen

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/10/2020 3:51:54 PM
Modified: 4/10/2020 9:29:58 PM

CLAREMONT — Macaroni and cheese is in short supply, fewer meat products are being donated and eggs are harder to come by.

Those are just a few of the challenges facing Upper Valley food shelves as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and more people rely on pantries to meet their nutritional needs.

In the second half of March, the Claremont Soup Kitchen added 42 family units to its monthly food box distribution. In January and February combined, only 30 new families signed up.

“That’s a huge jump,” said Cindy Stevens, who has been the nonprofit organization’s director for five years. “We’ve had some people who haven’t used our services in over a year coming back.”

Food pantry expenses have also skyrocketed. In March, the organization spent $5,374 on food purchases, double the amount from last March, Steven said.

One of the reasons for the increase is the price of meat.

Traditionally, the soup kitchen receives meat donations from area retailers, but with more of a demand from the public, the donations have been drastically reduced.

“The meat has completely diminished almost to nothing,” Stevens said. “Same as grocery stores are, we’re running low on the staple items.”

As of Thursday, the nonprofit had already spent $2,300 on food for the month of April. Thanks to donations coming in from community members and grant funding, Stevens said the Claremont Soup Kitchen — which also serves breakfast and lunch Monday-Friday and dinner every night of the week — has been able to meet the needs of the community. Macaroni and cheese has been replaced by additional pasta and sauce, which they’ve been able to purchase.

“Our costs are significantly increased, but we have avenues. We are going to make sure people have what they need,” Stevens said. “If this continues, we wonder how you can sustain this. The biggest thing right now that could help is monetary donations just because we’re having to purchase all of these extras.”

While some food pantries have seen more increases than others, organizations connecting people with food throughout the Upper Valley expect demand to increase. They also worry about what the economic landscape will look like in the coming months, even if the immediate threat of the virus wanes and restrictions on businesses and stay-at-home orders are eventually eased.

“Pretty much across the board they’re saying they’re concerned about the long term as the economic fallout hits the community,” said Gabe Zoerheide, executive director of Willing Hands, a nonprofit that distributes food to sites throughout the Upper Valley. “I feel like we weren’t meeting the needs before the crisis and this is going to make a lot more folks have needs.

“Everything is disturbed. There’s just changes everywhere. The themes are disruption, the themes are generosity. There’s just a huge amount of people who want to help.”

More families have signed up to receive weekly food packages from Friends of Mascoma Foundation since the pandemic began, said Eula Lee Kozma, executive director of the nonprofit organization that serves the five towns in the Mascoma Valley. Previously, people could come to the food pantries located in Canaan and Enfield and browse the shelves for the items they needed.

The organization has switched to a pickup-only model three weeks ago and relies on help from area law enforcement officers to deliver food to residents unable, or too at-risk, to leave their homes. Last Tuesday, 41 households representing 112 residents received food.

“I also think it’s going to continue to go up,” Kozma said.

People submit their requests for food via phone or email by Friday. Kozma and board member Carol Cusick then process the requests to determine how the food should be allocated by number of members in each household. Residents in Grafton and Enfield can also contact police in their town if they’re in need. On Sunday afternoons, the food boxes are put together by volunteers and law enforcement officials. People pick them up from 4-6 p.m. Tuesdays at the Canaan Fire Department, the Enfield Police Department parking lot and the Grafton Police Department. Expenses for March 2020 have tripled compared with March 2019, and the nonprofit expects them to continue to rise.

“We’ve had an outpouring of volunteers, which is wonderful, but for safety reasons we cannot have too many people in that space,” Kozma said. “We’ve seen such an outpouring of financial support. Since we have this additional funding we’re buying food from the foodbank.”

With children spending more time at home, snacks and other kid-friendly foods are a particular need.

Since the pandemic hit, eggs have become challenging to get, Zoerheide said.

“The egg supply is kind of crazy right now and the prices have gone way up and there’s not as many being donated to us as there used to be,” he said. “The biggest things the food shelves are asking for are dairy, eggs and bread. Those staples are usually the biggest things that are asked for. We’re trying to increase the supply of those.”

Willing Hands has also had to change the way it distributes food to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Some sites have closed as a result, or been moved to a place where a pickup service can be better coordinated. They continue to work with organizations such as senior housing facilities to try to get food to people who need it the most.

“Our first survey for the short-term needs is definitely a mix of food and financial support,” Zoerheide said. “We continue to be concerned about our food shelves and our own operation receiving enough food.”

In mid-March, the Upper Valley Haven saw an uptick in the number of people who were visiting the food pantry in White River Junction, before it leveled off, executive director Michael Redmond said. The Haven last month had 1,201 food shelf customers for an average of 55 per day. In March 2019, there were 1,142 customers, with an average of 54 per day.

“We’re a bit curious about that. As we see the numbers being flat, we wonder if they should be going up,” Redmond said. “The anticipated increase has not yet occurred.”

Part of that may be attributed to people who do not know about the services that the Haven has available.

“There’s no means test. We don’t turn people away,” Redmond said. “You don’t have to come in person. You can have someone come in your name.”

The organizations continue to work together to figure out where help is needed most.

“There hasn’t been a huge surge in need, but I think everyone is very concerned about what’s going to happen in the following months. Hopefully, the virus concerns go away a bit, but we’re not going to get back to normal life anytime soon,” Zoerheide said.

“At the same time we’re also really working on how six months from now we’re meeting increased needs,” he added. “It’s not just this week or next week we need to worry about. It’s going forward. How can we focus the generosity we’re having right now on long-term support for the community?”

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




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