Valley News – Food pantry in Wells River tries to get word out to the needy

WELLS RIVER — At least one local food shelf in the Upper Valley is trying to get the word out that it has more food than clients even as a myriad of programs have emerged to meet demand from needy families during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are so many intersecting programs with different districts (and) different timeframes all trying to address the food insecurity problem,” said Rick Hausman, a coordinator with the group Newbury United, which came together to support neighbors during the pandemic.

Demand for charitable food has undoubtedly increased during the pandemic. A University of Vermont study last year found that food insecurity increased 33% and long lines developed at regional food distribution events held in the Upper Valley towns of Thetford and Springfield, Vt.

But coordinating it all has proven to be a challenge at least for small groups like Newbury United.

Last summer, the group began operating a food giveaway called Share the Harvest on the steps of the Baldwin Memorial Library in Wells River to distribute surplus from the Rowe Community Garden. It has since evolved to also give out items from the nonprofit Willing Hands and Hannafords, as well as Farmers to Families food boxes and Everyone Eats prepared meals. This past Friday, the group also was offering toiletries gathered by the local Rotary club.

But Share the Harvest, which during the winter months migrated to the basement of Wells River Congregational Church down the street from the library, has just seven or eight regular clients. Hausman and his wife Emmy, who also is a coordinator for Newbury United, said they think the problem is less about a lack of demand and more about connecting those in need with the food they have available.

“We are aware that there are plenty of food-insecure people,” Hausman said, noting that Newbury, Vt., the town in which the village of Wells River sits, does not have broadband internet so it has been difficult to get the word out about the new program. He also pointed to stigma associated with food insecurity.

For her part, Emmy Hausman pointed to “a lack of coordination of services.” She noted that though Share the Harvest offers Farmers to Family food boxes to people, there also is a monthly food box distribution at the Agency of Transportation’s garage a few miles away.

The difficulty of matching food donations to people in need is not unique to Share the Harvest and Newbury United.

At a recent meeting of the Hunger Council of the Upper Valley, Helen Esmond of the Hartland Food Shelf also said she was struggling to get the word out about the food that’s available there, according to minutes from the meeting.

Still, the Wells River and Hartland groups appear to be in the minority around the state. The Vermont Foodbank has been conducting regular surveys of member food shelves during the pandemic, said John Sayles, the CEO of the Foodbank.

Half of the Foodbank’s network partners said they have seen and continue to see an increase in the number of people they’re serving.

A quarter of respondents said they are seeing consistent demand for food, while 15% have seen a decrease.

“There may be a few places where there is more than is needed right now,” Sayles said. But, overall, “As far as food security goes we haven’t overshot the mark.”

Gabe Zoerheide, the executive director of Norwich-based Willing Hands, which distributes donated fresh food to pantries in the Upper Valley, has more demand from recipient organizations than it can supply.

“From our vantage point fresh healthy fruits, vegetables, eggs, milk, cheese, meat, and other proteins are in great demand by the food shelves and those they serve,” he wrote in an email. “While there is always food at food shelves, it is not always the kind of food that makes up a healthy, full diet. Fresh healthy food is expensive, hard to source at a discount, difficult to keep and is always in demand.”

Similarly, Jennifer Fontaine, the director of operations at the Upper Valley Haven and the co-chair of the Upper Valley Hunger Council, said she thinks that there are still people who aren’t getting the food assistance they could use.

“The question becomes: How do we reach those people?” she said.

Fontaine discussed the issue with the Hausmans last week.

Like them, she noted that people living in the Upper Valley’s more rural areas may have less access to high-speed internet, which can be a barrier to accessing food.

She said that the Haven has adjusted its food shelf hours and modes of operation to accommodate people during the pandemic, something which volunteer-run groups like Share the Harvest might not have the bandwidth to do. She said she urged the Hausmans and their fellow volunteers to consider whether the hours from 2 to 4 p.m. on Fridays match the community’s needs.

Fontaine said that some pandemic-inspired food donation programs have seen success, including the Sharing and Caring Food Pantry at the United Methodist Church on Gates Street in White River Junction, which is open 24 hours a day.

“It’s nice because it’s all anonymous and it’s there all the time,” said Hannah Cerasoli.

Cerasoli leads the all-volunteer effort that began in March of 2020 and was partly inspired by her understanding of the need faced by the children and families she knows from her day job working in the Regional Resource Center at Hartford High School, which serves Upper Valley students with disabilities up to age 21.

People can both give and take from the pantry, which is housed in a shed built by White River Junction-based COVER Home Repair, at any time and they seem to be doing so, said Cerasoli. While it’s hard to say how many people are using the pantry, she said, “We continue to see more food going (out) than we have seen before.”

There are times when she comes to check on the pantry and the refrigerator and freezer are completely empty, she said.

Cerasoli said she knows that people have access to other sources of food, but “If we were not all seeing the demand, then we wouldn’t all need to coexist together.”

For now, when Share the Harvest, the Wells River group, has excess food, the volunteers deliver it to a nearby affordable housing complex and to the library down the street, which is open on a limited basis.

The Hausmans and other volunteers are also planning to discuss the issue of food access with providers at Little Rivers Health Care, which has a Wells River clinic, and they might try distributing informational flyers to all Wells River residents, Emmy Hausman said.

The Hausmans said they expect Share the Harvest will continue to distribute produce from the community garden after the pandemic has ended, but the future of the effort is otherwise uncertain.

“It’s hard to know what will continue and what will not,” Rick Hausman said.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3213.