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Economy Stresses N.H. Food Safety Net

Around the country soup kitchens and food pantries are reporting a spike in demand. Here in New Hampshire, food bank officials say they can’t keep up with requests for help. The state’s food assistance safety net is showing signs of serious strain. 

Things started to change for Christopher Persall sometime this summer.

“It goes from you being able to eat meats, fruits and vegetables and dessert to now there are days where there are some vegetables and some breads.”

Persall, his wife and their 22 month old live off food stamps and some piecemeal landscaping work he scrapes up.

The 23-year old says more and more people are joining the ranks of the needy.

He can tell because he’s waiting longer and getting less food than he did just back in June.

“So now, instead of being able to get food every day of the week, we can get two days out of the week. And once a month we can go on Monday. And that by itself shows you how much has changed.”

Since July demand at the Soup Kitchen has nearly doubled.

To meet that, staff has had to ration how often people like Persall can pick up perishable foods like carrots, potatoes and bananas.

Eileen Brady- who’s run the place for 18 years- has never had to take such a drastic step before.

Brady’s no social scientist, she’s actually a nun.

But based on conversations with the people coming in for dinner, she says hospital layoffs and layoffs in the non-profit sector due to budget cuts have made a difficult situation worse.

She says the economic downturn in 2008 was like a swollen river, taking out people right on the banks.

“But now it’s moving further back, and it could flood an entire community, rather than just the people on the fringes who might expect to have some problems.”

The Nashua Soup Kitchen is not an anomaly.

Statewide, the Community Action Program delivers food to about 250 food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters.

For the months of July, August and September, that organization is reporting a 15% increase in requests for assistance over last year.

Pantries are telling Community Action and the New Hampshire Food Bank- which also helps keep local shelters and the like stocked- that supply is low.

“No, it’s never been like this.”

That’s Mel Gosselin, the Executive Director of the New Hampshire Food Bank.

When you ask Gosselin how’s she’s doing, she’ll say she’s tearing her hair out.

So far, her organization has distributed 5.8 million pounds of food, with distribution up 15%.

“To put it in perspective, today our distribution number will be between 30-40 thousand pounds out the door. If we had more food that number would be much higher.”

Gosselin says while the price of food is up, requests for food are up... contributions are down.

She says business and corporate gifts are off 45% from last year.

In response, the Food Bank is purchasing 35% of the food it distributes, an unsustainable rate.

This perfect storm, as Gosselin calls it, has forced the Food Bank to consider its own form of rationing- capping how much local pantries can pick up.

“We are hopeful that something’s got to give. Something has to change. I think it’s just having faith that things will work out ot the best they can. It’s just, I know internally, staff is stressed b/c we are not seeing a change anytime soon.”

While the general trends remain grim, there are some donors who have responded.

One woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, supports the Food Bank through the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.

She says she’s seeing people come into soup kitchens and food pantries in their work uniforms and she worries.

“Normally we would donate through the charitable, about $1500 for the food bank. And we are up to, I just authorized a donation today for $5000 the need is there. It really is.”

The woman says she prays other people with some disposable income understand they can help.

Even if it’s $5, that $5 adds up to a meal.

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