Foundation supports essential food security work
Addressing food insecurity among the youngest children is one of the New Hampshire Children’s Health Foundation’s five funding priorities. It is always essential work, but it has become even more urgent during the coronavirus pandemic.
Demand on food programs has increased statewide and with social distancing precautions in place nonprofit organizations are facing and solving new challenges, especially those programs that feed low-income children.
In efforts to serve the state’s families, the Foundation’s goal is to support innovation, research-informed, emerging and promising best practice models that facilitate systemic change. One innovative concept it has supported is the implementation of the mobile market model to reach food insecure children and their families who have difficulty accessing traditional school or community kitchen programs.
“For a number of years the Foundation has worked with state agencies and non-profit organizations to increase children and families’ access to healthy food,” said Foundation board member Barbara Wauchope, PhD.
“We have supported efforts to increase participation in federal food nutrition and assistance programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), WIC (Women, Infants, and Children), and most recently, the Summer Food Service Program,” Wauchope added.
“Although meals are funded by the federal government, the burden of getting food to families and children is left to state and local organizations,” she said.
Gather’s Meals For Kids
Gather is a current Foundation grantee serving the greater Seacoast region from Rochester south to Portsmouth and Seabrook. The organization provides nutritious food to children during the summer when school is out through an innovative summer mobile market model and its Pantry Market.
When the current COVID-19 crisis closed down schools, low-income children no longer had access to daily meals. Because they had successfully piloted the mobile program, the Foundation provided emergency funding to help Gather respond to the crisis, confident that they would bring much-needed food to children facing serious food insecurity otherwise.
During the summer months, Gather’s mobile market visits six locations in the greater Seacoast each week delivering ingredients for healthy meals to children eligible for free or reduced breakfast and lunch in school.
“To meet the pandemic challenge we had to quickly restart our Meals for Kids Program last month,” said Gather Executive Director Deb Anthony.
“We’ve activated that model and are currently feeding 700 children each week,” she said.
Gather’s mobile market delivers milk and eggs, meat, vegetables, pasta, and peanut butter and jelly among other healthy staples. It is a model they know works effectively.
“We’re getting food more directly into homes with children,” said Anthony.
The mobile market model is also more effective at delivering food into homes with children who are not old enough yet to attend school.
Nationally, in the summer, only 17%-19% of children who qualify for free and reduced lunch are being reached by traditional in-school nutrition programs. Barriers to that participation include transportation, which is particularly a problem in rural areas of New Hampshire. This is the type of challenge the Foundation has sought to address.
“The mobile market is a model for rural America,” said Anthony. “Parents don’t have to drive children for breakfast and dinner to the high school or Boys and Girls Club. It saves them gas, time and money.”
She added, “We are at 50%-60% participation in our summer mobile program. And that’s a failing grade – we’d like to see it closer to 90% – but it shows the model is effective.”
Nashua scales up
Three years ago, the Foundation funded a project by the Nashua Soup Kitchen and Shelter to expand production and distribution of meals for young children under the age of five in four low-income neighborhoods in Nashua. While there are convenience stores in those neighborhoods selling beer, cigarettes and chips, the closest supermarket is two miles away. While responding to a pandemic is not what the Foundation had in mind when the grant was made, the model has enabled the Soup Kitchen to respond to an unanticipated situation.
Since formal measures to flatten the coronavirus transmission curve were implemented in mid-March, every Friday the Soup Kitchen sends fresh produce and frozen meals to eight schools that in turn make them available to 150 Nashua area families. The organization is also distributing fresh produce to senior housing locations.
The Soup Kitchen operates a traditional community kitchen serving breakfast and dinner as well as a food pantry. “Our actual numbers at those locations are understandably down,” said director Michael Rienke, “but we’ve scaled up to sixteen mobile pantries to respond to the pandemic.”
“There’s no way would could have done this without the funding we received from the Foundation which prepared us to do it,” he said.
The Greater Nashua United Way is also a recipient of an emergency COVID-19 response contribution by the Foundation to address children’s food insecurity during the pandemic.
Among its many emergency efforts, the United Way has become the food distribution arm for area schools. In just a few weeks United Way volunteers have already distributed more than 32,000 breakfasts and lunches prepared by the school district, as well as helping to distribute meals and produce sourced by the Soup Kitchen.
“Just because there’s no school doesn’t mean that kids don’t have to eat,” said United Way President Mike Apfelberg.
New volunteers are rising to the occasion
The coronavirus pandemic has divided the world into two classes of workers, essential and non-essential. The Soup Kitchen and Gather’s employees are essential, but both organizations also rely heavily on volunteers.
When asked how his employees are feeling about carrying on their duties during the pandemic, the Soup Kitchen’s Michael Rienke said, “People are obviously worried and concerned. It took a while but we finally got PPE. We’re paying a little extra – hazard pay – but we’re asking more of our staff. And most are low-to-moderate income people, often with health issues, like asthma or diabetes, of their own.”
Rienke also noted that while the Soup Kitchen has thousands of volunteers, most are over 70 so that help is largely gone.
Gather’s Deb Anthony noted that they have also seen a drop in volunteers, most of whom are retired people and who obviously are concerned about working given the risk of contracting the virus. “We’re picking up new volunteers though,” she noted. “Younger employees who are out of work.”
There is light in Nashua too. Volunteerism is a strength of the United Way. “We have an army of volunteers who have stepped up. Two hundred and fifty per day,” said Mike Apfelberg. “Typically our older volunteers are retired, but a lot of younger people aren’t working now and want to get involved.”
Reducing food insecurity is essential
While the coronavirus pandemic is highlighting the importance of food security, it’s an issue that has been and should remain a societal priority.
“It’s worth remembering that regional hunger projects are essential,” said Gather’s Deb Anthony.
“We are driven by mission,” she said. “It’s one of the things I really love about our community. People would go hungry otherwise.”
Adds Foundation board member Barbara Wauchope, “Any time our state faces an economic crisis, natural disaster, or health emergency like the coronavirus pandemic, the first ones to suffer are the families with children who have the least resources.”
“At the New Hampshire Children’s Health Foundation, we believe that by funding organizations to feed families during this crisis, we are honoring our mission to improve the health of our children,” Wauchope concluded.