Things are cooking

The New Hampshire Food Bank offers hunger relief — and a helping hand

Melanie Gosselin has seen the face of hunger. She has seen it on Thanksgiving eve, when she delivered a turkey dinner with all the fixings to a woman living on the Seacoast, housebound for years and dining alone. She has seen it in the lines of hopeful parents and children outside a mobile food pantry in a remote North Country community parking lot. And she has seen it in the earnest efforts of recently released convicts, working to turn their lives around in the New Hampshire Food Bank’s culinary training program, determined to break the cycle of poverty that, almost inevitably, brings hunger right along with it.

Gosselin, who grew up in Manchester, recalls that, perhaps like many others, she was largely unaware of the state’s hunger problem. “I didn’t even know a food bank existed right in my city — or what it did,” she says. Today, as executive director of the organization, Gosselin is intimately acquainted with the geography of hunger throughout the state. In 2006, the food bank, which distributes supplies to shelters and soup kitchens throughout the Granite State, was serving about 67,000 individuals; by 2010 that number had nearly doubled to 130,000. “That’s 10 percent of New Hampshire residents who don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” says Gosselin. In her hometown, the need is staggering: 70 food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters serve the residents of Manchester. About 25 percent of the city’s children live in poverty; in some neighborhoods, the figure is as high as 50 percent.

Ironically, notes Gosselin, the Granite State looks pretty good on paper. “You see all these stories about how it’s the best state to live in — and I certainly agree, but that’s the 30,000-foot view.” From that perspective, the problem of hunger is nearly invisible — especially when dealing with a population that tends to be fiercely private about their needs. “We hear stories about people burning their furniture because they can’t afford fuel,” says Gosselin. “But their pride keeps them from coming out to a food pantry.”

"The New Hampshire Food Bank is a critical piece of the statewide safety net," says Anne Phillips, senior program officer at the foundation, "especially because of their scope and impact."

While Gosselin’s dream is to work herself out of a job, the need for hunger relief is growing: in 2011, the food bank distributed 8 million pounds of food; the projection for 2012 is 10 million pounds. “We’re in the midst of a perfect storm,” says Gosselin, ticking off the contributing factors: food inflation, gas prices, health care costs — and limited food resources. “And this year, potential cuts to the farm bill and other federal feeding programs threaten to compound the problem.”

Which makes the role of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation all the more critical. “They’ve been an incredible partner for us,” says Gosselin, noting that a number of the foundation’s donors have been a moving force behind the food bank’s current $5 million capital campaign to establish a new facility. The renovated 60,000-square-foot building is more than three times the size of their former space, allowing for substantially more food collection and storage. “Our new refrigerator alone has about the same capacity as our old building,” says Gosselin.

For many foundation donors, the efforts of the food bank provide an especially meaningful avenue for giving, notes Deborah Schachter, senior program officer. “Hunger is elemental,” she says. “And there’s something you can do about it. There’s real appeal in being able to provide immediate relief for suffering.” Last year, during the holidays, foundation employees themselves made more than $3,000 in contributions to the Food Bank, a figure which was then matched by the foundation.

Donors also love the fact that the food bank has a reputation for resourcefulness, smart management, and innovative programs. A grant from the Entrepreneurs Foundation of New Hampshire, for example, is helping the food bank transform one of its professional kitchen facilities into a manufacturing and processing center — and a new source of revenue. A backpack program targets hungry kids who usually depend on school lunches to get through the weekend and vacation times. The Fresh Rescue Program salvaged more than a million pounds of meat from supermarkets in 2011. And when the organization’s food stamp outreach effort was in danger of being cut, a foundation grant helped save this critical program, which helps find and enroll people who need support.

While some programs focus on the immediate need for hunger relief, others have what Schachter calls an “up river” approach. “Providing food is like standing downriver feeding people after they’ve fallen in,” she says. “The food bank has also managed to go further up river,” providing solutions to keep people from facing food insecurity. The food bank’s Recipe for Success program, for example, launched with a two-year foundation grant, has changed the lives of many of the 130 culinary training graduates, 70 percent of whom have gone on to careers in food service.

For Joshua Mimms, the eight-week program was a lifeline, a last chance at hope after a felony conviction left him struggling to recover his reputation and salvage his career. Thanks to the food bank, Mimms discovered a passion for cuisine, a desire to help others — and a new path. Today he works full time as the organization’s assistant cook. “I have the most amazing job in the world,” he says, his voice brimming with gratitude. “I’m learning every day, and it’s a great way to give back.” Mimms feels a special kinship with the people who eat the meals he prepares — people who are living on the edge. He knows what it feels like to be standing in their shoes. And he knows that food bank meals are about more than basic sustenance — they come with a helping of dignity and a heaping serving of kindness.

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