Catholic Charities Report

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Another Bite at the Apple 

By Gary Bouchard

Picture above: NH Food Bank volunteers Mike Fandozzi and Maddie Odell stand amid the bounty of fresh produce and food that they helped distribute at the Fresh Food Pantry on July 10. Maddie is also a Catholic Charities NH AmeriCorps VISTA leader.

By 3:30 on a hot July afternoon, the large refrigerated truck with a picture of a large red apple has backed into the shaded part of the parking lot of Providence Baptist Church. The apple on the truck is missing a mouth-sized bite, next to it a rallying slogan of New Hampshire Food Bank declares: Bite Back On Hunger.

The arrival of this mobile Fresh Food Pantry here on the border of Raymond and Epping represents one very small bite among the thousands that the New Hampshire Food Bank, a program of Catholic Charities New Hampshire, has been taking for decades against the persistent problem of food insecurity for many New Hampshire residents.

Inside the truck, boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, milk, bread and salads await distribution. A dozen volunteers, many of whom have made this work a routine part of their lives, begin unloading the truck, expediently organizing the food onto tables, placing eggs into cartons, and readying for members of the surrounding communities who are due to arrive at 4:30. By 3:45, a substantial line has already formed – well before the appointed time the makeshift pantry is scheduled to begin distribution. But here, of course, the only transactions come in the forms of smiles and expressions of gratitude.

Paul Barker, who oversees the evening’s distribution, has been working at the NH Food Bank for 13 years, starting as warehouse manager, and now in a variety of purchasing and donor relations roles. He hopes to see maybe a hundred families come through on this evening. “The amount of food we distribute each year is governed only by the amount of food we receive,” he says. “I haven’t seen a ceiling yet.

“It’s not that people aren’t working,” he explains in reference to the state’s low unemployment rate, “it’s the low pay rate. You have families where mom and dad are both working but still can’t make ends meet. It really shouldn’t be that way.”

One woman, Mary, has arrived with bags to fill on behalf of several seniors that she helps to look after. “These are people who live in senior housing. They can’t have a garden and they typically can’t afford fresh produce, so this is very helpful.” Another woman, Dot, notes that she and most of the others there are “low income.” Besides taking care of her own needs, she looks after a 95-year-old man who can’t travel to pantries. “This is a big help,” she says.

In the last year, the NH Food Bank has been distributing food out of its parking lot on Wednesday evenings. But the large numbers of people who showed up became too much to manage, Barker says. “People started lining up at 11:30 for a 4 p.m. distribution, and it became unsafe to have families and kids in the parking lot with truck traffic coming in and out. We noticed that many of the people were also coming from long distances, so we decided to bring the pantry to them.” After NH Food Bank staff and partner agencies evaluated communities statewide that had a high need and low resources, various cities and towns were identified to hold the weekly Fresh Food Pantries.

Jim Foster, one of the many Bank of America employees volunteering on this afternoon, is a regular volunteer each Wednesday, and helps to lead the process. “I like hearing people’s stories,” he says. “They're so thankful. I believe we’re all cut from the same cloth and it only takes a small hiccup in life to make someone really vulnerable. I grew up wicked poor,” he recalls, “and I know what it’s like to worry about being hungry. I just want to give back.”

By 5:30 on this evening, the distribution line has dwindled, boxes are being broken down and non-perishables are being carried inside the church for distribution later from the church food pantry. Paul did not see as many people come through as he had hoped, but is looking forward to rolling the truck into Rochester next week. For him and his crew of volunteers, it has been one more small bite out of an apple that seems to grow larger with time. But for the several dozen people of this community who came out tonight and left with bags of mangos, raspberries, squash and other items they could never afford for themselves or the people they care for, the night has been a midsummer blessing.

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