Hungry in New Hampshire

New Hampshire is by any definition a prosperous state. So ponder this fact: Last year the NH Food Bank delivered eight million pounds of food to outlets serving those they call the "food insecure." This year they need to increase that amount to nine milli



Photography by John W. Hession

"After a full belly all is poetry." - Frank McCourt

Thirty-four-year-old Devyn from North Stratford has a tidy swoop of dark hair and a homemade heart tattoo on the side of her neck. "I lost my mom a couple years ago and me and my father and daughter moved into an apartment on Section 8," she says.

Once a week, if she has enough gas, she gets herself to the food pantry in the basement of the United Methodist Church in Lancaster. "We get $200 in food stamps and the pantry makes up for the balance. Like right now, we're pretty much out of food and I have to come, otherwise we wouldn't be able to eat."

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Eric, who is homeless, cooks a meal at his campsite within blocks of the State Capitol in Concord.

After signing in with pantry volunteer Irene Just, Devyn sits down to wait for her number to be called.

"This used to be the old Sunday school class," Myra Emerson says and gestures at the oven-brown chairs and time-worn walls of the waiting room. "But now all the kids are so good!" She winks. She has glasses, a round friendly face and short, self-kept gray hair. On her violet cardigan is a print of merry birds on a blossoming branch.

Myra has run the food pantry since 1995 - a full-time job she does for free. Twice a month, if she has the money, she orders 3,500 pounds of food online from the New Hampshire Food Bank in Manchester. "It costs 18 cents a pound but produce and bakery are free. It used to be you didn't know what you'd get, but that's gotten a lot better," she says.

The Food Bank delivers once a month. If Myra needs more, she'll rent a truck and drive herself to Manchester. She always needs more but she doesn't always have the money.

While 80 percent of her stock comes from the Food Bank, she also gets fresh vegetables from local farms and the gardens of friends. With the Food Bank's "Fresh Rescue" program, she gets top-quality meat from Shaw's. "Without the Food Bank we wouldn't be here," she says.

***

The Lancaster Food Pantry is one of 400 similar satellite organizations in the state kept in business by the Food Bank.

"If I've done anything right," Melanie Gosselin, who directs the Food Bank says, "I've hired the greatest staff. They will do anything. Load or unload pallets. Go anywhere, do anything. And we have amazing volunteers like Myra. Last year our volunteers put in 30,000 work hours. That's like an additional 15 full-time staff."

Like Devyn, one in nine people in New Hampshire is "food insecure" - they don't know where their next meal is coming from. In Manchester one in four children doesn't know.

"These aren't just homeless people anymore," Melanie says. "A lot of these people work, have homes. But lot of them have medical issues too and very little means to pay. We have people who used to volunteer at the pantries who now rely on them."

Melanie went to school for guitar. She plays classical and bluegrass but suffers from terrible stage fright. "Now with the Food Bank I give two or three talks a week to groups of people. It's part of my job. I get nauseous every time. But the issue of hunger is just too important."

In an earlier life, she helped open two Walmarts. "It somehow all makes sense to me," she says.

***

Mrya Emerson is also familiar with the fickle intricacies of fate. For many years she worked at the hospital as a patient sitter. After her husband died and she got busier at the food pantry, she resigned her post. "They asked me to fill out a questionnaire at the hospital about why I was leaving. I wrote down 'I am too busy working for nothing to work at a paying job.'"

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Myra Emerson of the Lancaster Food Pantry gets ready for the lunch crowd.

Myra crosses the hall and enters the "refrigerator room," a buzzing closet jammed with more than a dozen Frigidaires. "We keep all the meats and things in here obviously," she says.

There's a burst of laughter from the waiting room and Myra smiles. "People aren't just food hungry," she says, "A lot of them are socially hungry too." She shoots back down to the waiting room where 56-year-old Penny is holding court.

Penny has her allotted two bags of food on the floor near her feet but she's not ready to leave yet. In a black satin trucking jacket and the jumping cadence of a comedienne, she tells the seven gathered ladies that, in her opinion, Myra should take over for Bobby Valentine.

Myra should be put in charge of the New England Patriots.

Soon everyone is at it. Myra should run this company, take over that organization. "Every town needs a Myra!" Penny calls. The small room heats up.

Penny mixes nonsense with no-nonsense and has a graceful, moving way of switching between jokes and seriousness. "When Myra speaks, everybody listens," Penny says.

Irene looks up from her sign-in sheet, "I don't think anyone has ever said no to Myra. She's not shy."

"I used to be timid about asking for things," Myra says, timidly, still shy about some things. She jangles the keys in her pocket, a sign of growing discomfort.

"But she doesn't ask anymore. She just tells people what she wants," says Penny.Irene's eyes widen at such improbable, wonderful boldness.

"Look, I'm on Social Security," Penny says, "I get 74 dollars a month in food stamps and if it wasn't for the food pantry I'd wither away to nothing." Ironic laughter from her listeners because Penny is not small and the withering would be a while. "But what food we're able to get once a week, it tides us over until we get Social Security or food stamps."

There's a churchlike murmur of assent from the women gathered in the waiting room.

"We agree," 67-year-old Cheryl says, speaking for the group. Cheryl stands when her number is called and prepares to collect her food. "Myra is wonderful. My husband is disabled and very sick now and without the food pantry we'd have to decide between groceries and medicine. Before we found the food pantry we sometimes had to make the decision - well, do we eat this week or not?"

"Everyone is her family," Penny says, "And she looks out for her family. And her family looks out for her."

Penny leans away to make a quiet joke that safely undoes all the kind words. Everyone laughs. Myra jangles her keys.

Penny shifts gears again. "Look, Myra is the church. She is the food pantry, she is the meals. Before she stepped in, there was nothing. You take into consideration that you got people coming from Stark, Lunenberg, Granby because this is the only place. And they know that sometimes the picking is hard, but Myra, she's a go-getter. She's earned her wings and I'm surprised you can't see 'em!"

"Watch out or her head will get big!" someone calls, but warmly.

"The truth don't make your head big," Penny says, and then repeats it, and for a moment everyone can see how it is that people who are funny are also wise.

***

"I drove by this building for nine years thinking it would be ideal because it was a distribution center," Melanie Gosselin says of the Food Bank's expansive facility on East Industrial Park Drive. "It's been two years but it's still a dream to be here, especially after West Brook Street."

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Volunteers at the Manchester Homeless Services Center heat and plate meals created by the Food Bank’s Culinary Training Program as Manager Chris Emerson brings fresh trays.

The old brick facility that used to house the Food Bank was a three-way disaster. Trucks were damaged in the narrow turn. "It was so small we really couldn't do anything. It was like a free for all, a flea market. We could fit the old Food Bank into the refrigerator we have now," Melanie says.

The sparkling facility has a large warehouse, administration offices and space to grow their outreach programs. In the sorting room annex, John Washburn examines a can of tomatoes for dents. He looks at the expiration date. He's been volunteering at the Food Bank for 14 years. "When I started we had about three million pounds of food coming through our hands. Now it's around eight million pounds. We sort it and categorize it, box and label it and get it ready for the pantries and shelters. In my old job I sat at a desk, but I like this. This really keeps me going."

Every morning, an eclectic mix of cars and trucks perch about the vast bay doors like colorful birds feeding on the nectar of an industrial flower. When the burdened vehicles shrug away, they are loaded down with food John and the volunteers have boxed and labeled. The food will be brought to soup kitchens, shelters, food pantries, day care facilities and senior centers around the state.

The Food Bank is a sorting and distribution hub. A nexus and a gateway that connects food directly to the hungry. "People think you can come here and get a meal," Melanie says, "but that's not how it works. We are out in the communities, in food pantries, shelters, where the people who need us are."

As Melanie enters the massive warehouse her voice dissolves in the airy space. Inside the Food Bank refrigerator, she has to shout above the frost-making racket. "This is just the band-aid. It's a necessity, we need to feed people, but it's not changing the culture."

Changing the culture is Melanie's deeper mission. Breaking the cycle of poverty keeps her up at night.

***

In the ship-like underbelly of the church where Myra works, there's a scent of old meetings. A smell of 1965. The church cellars aren't large but each room, like every volunteer, has a clear and separate purpose. Waiting room, storeroom, pantry, refrigerator room. It's a grittier, bespoke version of the Food Bank itself.

Myra's storeroom shelves are light today. An autistic volunteer named David draws a slow line across the barcode of a tuna can. "He's marking off the barcodes because people will sometimes try to take things back to the store and get money," Myra says.

It's the end of the month and supplies are dwindling both at the Lancaster Food Pantry and the Manchester Food Bank. The pre-holiday months are notoriously lean. "The summer is also hard," Myra says. "With the kids home from school. A lot of these kids get two meals a day at the school and then summer comes along and ..." she makes the sound of a truck hitting a wall, which is also the sound of hungry children hitting summertime air.

When Devyn's number is called, she takes her canvas shopping bags and heads down the hall. The rules and limits about the available stock are listed on a wrinkled sheet taped beside the shelves.

Devyn notices but doesn't complain about the lack of toilet paper this week. But her supplies reassure her. "Today I got salmon, sausage and hot dogs. My daughter will love these popsicles. They get farm fresh vegetables. This week it's tomatoes. A couple weeks ago they had green beans. Spaghetti, potatoes. And once in a while people give Myra stuff like this." Devyn spins a fancy perfumed candle in the air and smiles brightly.

As long as there are fragrant candles, there is hope.

Devyn's people are from the coast. Her mother is buried near the sea. Her grandfather was a lobsterman. She and her father grew up eating fish. Tonight, she will light the candle and share the salmon with her family.

***

"We hear the economy's starting to change," Melanie says. "But the folks we're serving will be the last to see it." Among the things she's most excited about are the Food Bank's "Recipe for Success" outreach programs that help arrest, break - address at least - the cycle of poverty.

The Food Bank isn't just in the business of food anymore. Their Culinary Training Program takes on 15 unemployed people every eight weeks and gives them viable job skills. They currently have a 65-percent employment record. (See sidebar, "Indside the Culinary Training Program of the NH Food Bank" at the end of the story)

Graduates of their nutrition and meal-making program "Cooking Matters," which pairs a professional chef and nutritionist, say that they are now saving $30 a month in groceries.

Last year the Food Bank distributed eight million pounds of food - six million meals in all. "This year it'll be more than nine million pounds," Melanie says. Hunger and poverty in the state, and across the country, are rising fast.

In 2006, according to the National Hunger Study, there were 67,000 food-insecure people in New Hampshire. By 2010 that number nearly doubled. "And now we're trying to feed around 143,000," Melanie says. But as she sees it, the grand mission of the Food Bank is to put itself out of business.

***

In the white noise of the refrigerator room Myra speaks plainly. "Times are tough," she says. "There are no jobs up here. The jobs are gone. It's bad."

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A client of the Lancaster Pantry carries food home to her family.

Every month volunteer Irene Just signs up new families. "Last year we served 360 families," she says, looking through her sheets. "This year it's over 450. We signed up 13 new families this month alone."

In the refrigerator room, Myra checks her imminent candor. "The thing that bothers me the most is that it doesn't bother me anymore," she says, with a tremor in her throat. "When you see somebody, 75 years old, come in with tears in their eyes because they are forced to ask for assistance? It used to make me cry. But it doesn't anymore. I have seen too much of it. It used to make me cry but it doesn't anymore."

What isn't mentioned is clearly seen. Even as Myra confesses her immunity to former sorrows, she is, in fact, crying.

A charitable deed is an act of intimacy and compassion, but the results are not predictable. It can warm the heart of the giver while it strips dignity from the recipient. A hand from a friend can lift the body and soul while a hand from a distant agency can simply be a reminder of one's desperate position.

True charity requires an alchemy that transforms both the giver and the receiver and reduces the distance between them.

Good people like Myra Emerson, like Irene Just, like Melanie Gosselin, don't just serve food to hungry people. They go where the hunger is and they abide. NH

Inside The Culinary Training Program of the NH Food Bank

Creating a method of delivering food to thousands of families involves the craft and artistry that might go into building a sailboat, a thing of grace designed to survive high seas and the occasional tempest. Sometimes it's more like sailors building a ship inside a bottle or, in this case, chefs training the unemployed to make meals for the homeless.

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Culinary trainee Andrew Whitzel fine-tunes his pan skills with Chef Jayson McCarter.

"We're making food on a big scale, 500 meals a day in this kitchen. The food goes to shelters, the homeless," Andrew Whitzel says. He's one of 15 unemployed men and women accepted into the Food Bank's eight-week Culinary Training Program. Two hundred have graduated so far and 65 percent of them are currently employed.

Andrew's white chef coat is decorated with vegetable medley. The former journeyman electrician had to sell his tools to stay alive. "I was unemployed for a year and a half until I found this," he says.

Halfway through the training and Andrew has already secured an internship at Cotton. "I feel like I can get a job after this. In fact, I know I can get a job after this," he laughs at his own certainty.

And not just a job. A way forward. In five years, Andrew wants to be head chef in his own kitchen. "Working here helps you find out if you're really in it or not. Cleaning up this kitchen after it's dirty? Not everyone wants to do it. The people who stay and get it done, those are the people who know they're in the right place."

Cleaning the food-wrecked kitchen is the only proof Andrew needs. For those with hope, the least likely evidence is the handmaiden of dreams.

Host Your Own Food Drive

By hosting a food drive at your office, school, club or place of worship, you can help the NH Food Bank continue to meet the needs of many people in our community. Here are some tips to make it a success:

1. Think about what would motivate your audience and how to communicate with them. If you're planning an office drive, get management involved and offer an incentive - a half-day off, for instance - for bringing the most items. See if your company would be willing to match each food item donated with $1.

2. If you're planning a food drive at a school, have a competition between classes to see who can collect the most items. Have a pep rally to kick off the drive. Food Bank staff members are available to come to speak at the rally.

3. If you're having a one-time event - a PTA meeting, baseball game or business retreat perhaps - spread the word as early as possible and send a reminder a day or two before the event.

4. Promote, promote, promote. Use e-mails, posters, flyers. Let the Food Bank know so it can be posted on its website.

5. Combine your food drive with a fund drive. If someone forgets to bring a food item, consider collecting cash or check donations as well.

6. Set a goal. Everyone understands a goal. Some groups set a numerical goal - collect 5,000 cans of soup or 1,000 boxes of cereal. Other groups strive to fill an object like a car or recycling bin.

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Volunteers and staff from the NH Food Bank.

 

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