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With poverty rising, Manchester food bank struggles to keep up with need

New Hampshire Union Leader

November 20. 2013 6:23PM

MANCHESTER — One in four children in Manchester goes to bed hungry each night, officials with the state's only food bank say.

And, statewide, 140,000 people don't know where their next meal is coming from — the definition of hungry — up 10 percent from last year, according to Feeding America, the national organization comprising food banks from across the nation. Of those 140,000 residents, 30,000 are children, according to Mel Gosselin, executive director of the New Hampshire Food Bank.

"It is higher per capita than in Boston or New York City," she said of the number of hungry children under the age of 18 in Manchester.

The statistics are based on the number of school children in the state's largest city who receive free or reduced lunches, according to Nancy Mellitt, director of development for the food bank.

Mayor Ted Gatsas said it's not hard to believe when 92 percent of the children attending just one inner city school — Beech Street School — qualify for free or reduced lunches — and an estimated 1,000 youths are homeless in the city, according to a report presented in May by the Mayor's Youth Advisory Council.

After having the lowest child poverty rate in the nation for more than a decade, New Hampshire was among the states with the largest increase, according to a study issued in September by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. The state's child poverty rate increased by more than 30 percent since 2011, to reach an estimated 15.6 percent in 2012, according to the study.

Gosselin said poverty more than anything else accounts for the increase in people needing food and seeking it at the state's food pantries and soup kitchens.

Last year, the food bank distributed 8½ million pounds of food to more than 400 food pantries and soup kitchens serving the then 130,000 hungry people across the state. In one year, another 10,000 residents joined the food lines at pantries and soup kitchens across the state; that's 1 in about 9 people living here.

Shelves normally brimming with food are bare at the pantry a week before Thanksgiving.

"It is as bad as I have seen it in a very long time," said the mayor. "As my parents told me growing up, no child should ever go to bed hungry."

People usually donate more around the holidays, but Gatsas said, "we have to make sure we keep it in the front of our minds, not in the back of our minds."

The food bank is hard-pressed to keep up with the need, especially with the closing of Shaw's and Stop & Shop groceries stores. The two grocery chains contributed a combined million pounds of food to the food bank annually, Gosselin said.

She said even though Stop & Shop no longer has a store in New Hampshire, this week it still delivered 1,000 turkeys to the food bank for Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, another 1,450 pounds of food collected at more than 200 Dunkin' Donuts shops across the state made its way into the food bank's East Industrial Drive warehouse. The doughnut shop franchisees also contributed $5,000 in cash to the agency.

"They do a great job helping people around the state," said Durval Salemna, representing the Dunkin' Donuts franchisees. "Over 140,000 people in New Hampshire are in need of food. It's such a large number for such a small state."

It is the third year that N.H. Dunkin' Donuts' shops have collected food for the needy.

"I can tell you this will be gone this week," Gosselin said of the bins piled high with canned goods, pasta, peanut butter, rice, crackers and other food.

Many shelves in the warehouse were empty Wednesday.

"People aren't donating as much as before because they can't," said Debbie Learnard who works in agency relations for the food bank. She said the state unemployment rate, which was 5.1 percent in October, simply doesn't tell the real picture because it doesn't count the people who have used all their unemployment benefits.

Gosselin said those figures also don't include the individual who was laid off from a full-time professional job and now works a lower -paid, part-time job with no benefits, or those who are so discouraged they have just given up trying to find work.

"One medical issue can devastate your family," she said.

The need also increased after Congress cut back on food stamps, she said. A family of four lost $40 a month, according to Gosselin. And, now Congress is proposing cutting about $40 billion in the farm bill, which provides funding for the Women, Infants and Children program, food stamps and Meals on Wheels for seniors.

Gosselin said while it is tough in Manchester, it is even worse in the North Country where jobs are scarce and some agencies are reporting 40 percent increases in those coming in for help. And now it's heating season.

"You hear the stories about people burning furniture to heat their homes," she said. "There's a lot of Yankee pride. Imagine what it feels like to stand in line at a food pantry."

In August, food bank workers took part in Feeding America's most recent directed study of the nation's hungry, which is done every four years. Mellitt said New Hampshire Food Bank workers were given specific sites to go to and survey every fifth or ninth person. Workers also had tablets that those at the soup kitchens or food pantries could fill out. The study involved both those working at the food programs and the recipients.

The results are expected sometime next year.

"I'm nervous about what we are gong to see," said Gosselin.

The food bank welcomes donations, which can be made at its 700 E. Industrial Drive headquarters, Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. It will be open this Saturday as well — from 8 a.m. to noon — when turkeys will be distributed to the agencies.

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