The state of hunger: A disconnect between need and available food

By: - March 14, 2022 3:53 am
Nearly empty food pantry shelves

For some food pantries in New Hampshire, the problem isn’t empty shelves but that there is not enough storage capacity. (Getty Images)

This story was updated on March 14 at 1:58 p.m.

Jon Eriquezzo is having trouble getting the food he needs through national supply chains to deliver nutritious meals to seniors and people who are homebound, and as president of the Hillsborough Meals on Wheels, that’s a problem. But locally, at food pantries and farms, he’s seeing an excess supply.

Food pantries, meanwhile, have been turning away deliveries because they don’t have the storage space and the food isn’t moving off their shelves fast enough, say state employees who administer an emergency food program.   

But this excess doesn’t mean the state has solved its hunger and food insecurity problems, according to advocates. They point to the nearly 80,000 people who reported not having enough to eat in the last seven days in Census Pulse data from early February, numbers that have swollen by 30,000 since last September. This comes at a time when one in four people are having trouble paying for basic household expenses.

“It’s not that people don’t need,” said Laura Milliken, executive director at New Hampshire Hunger Solutions.

Advocates like Milliken are concerned that federal aid programs aren’t being used as much as they should, which means people who need help aren’t getting it. Participation in those programs is low, said Milliken. She pointed to SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program, which is at a 10-year low in terms of participation and has continued declining during the pandemic without a clear explanation why. “We’re not honestly 100 percent sure why that is,” she said, although she noted that the state hasn’t made helping people access the program a priority for years.

New Hampshire is lagging compared to other states, ranking 39th in the nation when it comes to SNAP participation and 47th in the nation for participation in school breakfast.

The consequences of low participation are clear. “There are reams of data that show that kids who eat breakfast at school have improved diets, have improved academic performance, have fewer behavior problems, and fewer trips to the nurse, stronger attendance, stronger graduation rates, and there are long-term studies that show that kids who ate breakfast in school do better in life,” Milliken said. Kids who get breakfast even go on to earn more than those who don’t, she said.

And low participation in SNAP means federal dollars are being turned away that could be funneled into the local economy – like an estimated $37.9 million in federal funds that could have come to the state in 2019, had the up to 17,000 children who were potentially eligible but unenrolled used the program. In addition to these children, the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute estimated there were thousands more eligible adults not using the program. Economic analysis by Moody’s has shown that each dollar spent on the program generates over $1.50 in economic activity.

A bill before the Legislature would create a statewide outreach plan, a measure advocates hope will boost participation. Neighboring states with outreach plans in place see higher participation in their programs – meanwhile, New Hampshire hasn’t had an outreach plan for five years. Senate Bill 404 would change that, instructing the Department of Health and Human Services to create a plan, which would provide guidance on eligibility and help accessing the program. If the program receives federal approval, half of the funding would come from the federal government. Milliken said private organizations, like nonprofit partners, could raise the remaining 50 percent to match the federal money.

Eriquezzo said Hillsborough Meals on Wheels has already trained some staff in SNAP enrollment, so that when they’re doing intake they can help people who qualify to enroll. The legislation, he said, recognizes that hunger is a statewide problem.

When it comes to food shortage, Eriquezzo chalks up his problem to supply chain weirdness that he started noticing last July. Hillsborough Meals on Wheels puts together anywhere between 7,500 and 8,000 meals a week – a considerable operation that requires lots of logistics going right. He would get a note from the kitchen that puts the meals together saying, for example, that they were short 200 bushels of broccoli, so they would have to make corn instead. The substitution doesn’t seem like a big deal, Eriquezzo said, but the program is required to meet dietary metrics for seniors set out by the federal government. If they don’t, they don’t get paid and can’t get meals to those who need them.

There were other problems too – like plastic bag shortages that meant items like bread and cookies couldn’t be distributed. Milk distribution was another problem; it was going bad, and Eriquezzo learned it was due to a truck driver shortage that meant drivers had longer routes. 

For Eriquezzo, these problems down the supply chain mean he runs the risk of not being able to deliver meals to those who depend on them. The program surveys participants, asking whether people are getting any visitors besides food delivery from Meals on Wheels. Before the pandemic, around 20 percent of people said they were not; during the pandemic, that percentage shot up to 60 percent, where it has remained for two years.

Those wellness checks – the only visit that many people in the program are getting – also hang in the balance. Without the meal, there’s no funding to check in.

Eriquezzo said building his own commercial kitchen would provide more flexibility and allow him to use the surplus of food he’s seen in the state. “We’re seeing the problems and rather than have it creep up on us and just happen, we need to be prepared and have a plan B, because the answer cannot be that we don’t deliver,” he said. “It’s not only the food we’re providing the seniors, it’s the wellness checks. It’s making sure that people are doing OK.”

It could allow him to use other federal programs too, like The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). That program secures truckloads of food for the state, but Katie Daley, a federal surplus manager who administers the program for the New Hampshire Department of Administrative Services, said pantries have been turning away food deliveries for lack of space and demand.

“Food pantries and soup kitchens throughout the state decline our deliveries frequently because they don’t have enough capacity. They aren’t receiving as many families as they were pre-pandemic,” Daley said.  

Especially shocking to her was when food pantries started turning away peanut butter, a food that’s high in protein and lasts for a long time.

Sue Houck, the president and operations manager of the Loudon Food Pantry, said she has a lot of TEFAP food. “We’re lucky,” she said. “I found space for it, but I know there’s a lot of other pantries that are a lot smaller that would have a hard time storing it.”

Some federal dollars allocated to the TEFAP program have not been spent. Of $1.4 million available for one kind of order, around $815,500 was spent. Daley said that’s because she places orders by the truckload and factors in lots of variables to prevent food waste from occurring.

“The idea that we’re not necessarily utilizing our funds is not accurate,” she said. “We are bringing in a tremendous amount of food, providing over half a million pounds per month.”

Daley said that the supply outweighs New Hampshire’s demand for TEFAP foods, a situation the department believes is due to the abundance of resources offered during the pandemic, like stimulus checks, unemployment benefits, P-EBT, and the mobile food pantries run by the New Hampshire Food Bank. 

For Eriquezzo, it comes down to an issue of removing red tape and navigating bureaucracy to get food into the hands of those who need it. “We need to get the food to where it needs to be,” he said.

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee reported on energy and environment for New Hampshire Bulletin. She also previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.