CLAREMONT — The Claremont Soup Kitchen has been seeing a steady surge of people in need since the summer, founder and director Jan Bunnell said Monday.
"We've been feeding well over 100 people every night," she said. "We're seeing a lot of new people. We've gotten a lot more elderly and we're seeing a lot more young families that are really having to struggle."
It's not uncommon to see about 125 people a night, she said.
The people seeking food boxes from the Claremont Soup Kitchen's Food Pantry has also doubled from about 20 to 25 boxes per day to about 50 per day.
The average number of people at the soup kitchen in the past might have been about 40. In the middle of the month, when food stamps and other government benefits would run out, the numbers start to climb, Bunnell said.
But it has been at these high levels since July, throughout each month, and it's not going down.
Bunnell said anyone who walks in is welcome to a meal at the soup kitchen, but those asking for a box from the food pantry have to fill out a form. There are the pensioners on fixed incomes, the unemployed and the homeless, but what is saddening is the number of working families receiving food stamps and are requiring the extra meals and food boxes just to feed their children.
"When I see how much they are making and what they are paying in exorbitant rents, I am saying, 'Oh my God,'" Bunnell said.
Often people are working two jobs and still not making enough to pay the bills.
Bunnell founded the soup kitchen 30 years ago when a large manufacturer in the city closed and laid-off 600 people.
"Even when we started it back in 1983 it was bad, but people found that they could go out and find jobs," she said.
Claremont remains a "depressed area," she said, and she is very often told by people who say they would like to drive to the Lebanon area or other areas to look for work, but they can't afford to fill their gas tanks, and that's if they even have a car.
Bunnell said she suspects the rise in clients has to do with the expected drop in food stamp benefits and winter heating assistance.
People are most likely trying to spend less on their food budgets so they can survive the expected cuts, she said.
New Hampshire's only statewide food bank is also seeing an increase in need, said Bruce Wilson, director of operations at New Hampshire Food Bank, a NH Catholic Charities program.
New Hampshire Food Bank provides about 400 food pantries, soup kitchens, homeless shelters and boys and girls clubs with food to distribute to the needy.
"The need continues to be very strong. Currently we are seeing anywhere from 6 to 7 percent increase compared to last year," Wilson said.
That need is expected to rise with the upcoming holiday season, he said.
Wilson said NH Food bank does not receive any state or federal funding, but the closing of six Shaw's supermarkets in the state and Stop & Shop closing all of its New Hampshire stores has had an impact on store donations to the food bank.
The federal farm bill is also expected to impact food stamp benefits, he said, which is expected to create a greater need in communities for the local food banks and pantries.