Sherisse Salter (left) and Angalena Negron distribute meals at Elmwood Gardens in Manchester with New Hampshire Hunger Solutions. They worked to expand participation in summer meals sites in the city. (Kate Dario/NHPR)
Earlier this year, people who pay attention to food insecurity in New Hampshire noticed something alarming: The rate of families reporting insufficient food access shot up by more than 10%. By this spring, estimates showed that more than half of Granite State households with children didn’t have enough to eat.
And in the most recent Census pulse survey last month, nearly 200,000 children in the state lived in households that lacked sufficient food. – that’s up by nearly 40,000 additional children since January.
While this rise in hunger is troubling, it’s not a complete shock to those who work on the issue. Advocates in the field say many of New Hampshire’s most vulnerable households are trapped in a double bind these days: Continued inflation is pushing the prices of essentials like groceries ever higher, at the same time that several pandemic-era safety net programs have been rolled back. The result? A sharp increase in the number of families in the state who report trouble putting enough food on their table week to week.
Advocates say the rise in food insecurity illustrates the tentative financial state of many families here, and the important role that pandemic-era assistance played in improving the quality of life for many.
“The only thing that changed with the pandemic is that we created programs that made it easier for people to survive with the cost of living the way it is,” said Jessica Gorhan, social impact and development director of the non-profit New Hampshire Hunger Solutions.
A rollback of pandemic-era aid
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government made it easier for people to qualify for a range of support programs. Most notably, it increased monthly allotments for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, referred to as SNAP or food stamps, giving low-income people more money to spend on groceries. The federal government did not end the national public health emergency until May, but it cut back the additional SNAP support months earlier, issuing the last pandemic allotment in February. The impact in New Hampshire can be seen in the numbers: Families in the state reporting insufficient food leapt from 44% of respondents to 54% between February and April, according to Census pulse data. That’s about 50,000 more households struggling to put enough food on the table.
These rates leveled-off a little but have stayed continually high through the summer.
Gorhan said the expansion of SNAP and other similar aid programs during the pandemic brought about a long-awaited policy change that made food more accessible — even though they did not address the larger structural issues behind food insecurity.
In part due to this additional money, New Hampshire saw lower rates of food insecurity during the pandemic, according to the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute. But now those who work to fight hunger in the state say government policy has not kept up with the reality many residents are still facing, where inflation-related food costs linked to the pandemic persist, but the tools designed to help people stay afloat have suddenly gone away.
Eileen Liponis, who leads the New Hampshire Food Bank, said the cut in the additional funding put a significant strain on food-insecure people. Local advocates estimated the average individual in the state saw a $108 cut and the average family saw a $206 cut in their monthly issuance.
Liponis said demand for the charitable food system has been higher since March, with the Food Bank hosting more frequent mobile food pantries for more households.
“Before COVID, we would do maybe six or 10 [mobile food pantries] a year and they would be targeted and probably have enough for 250 families,” she said. “Now we're doing one a week on average [for] 400 families.”
Alice Farry, a new mom in Nashua, is one of those Granite Staters who has been turning to her local food pantry to make ends meet. Alice works full-time at McDonald’s, earning $15.50 an hour, and her boyfriend works 20 hours a week for the same wage, so they narrowly miss the qualifications to receive SNAP benefits. Still, even as a two-income household and some additional support, they struggle to afford enough nutritious food and anything other than “the most basic of basic stuff.”
She says some of the food bank offerings help a little, but her own dietary restrictions and the limited options result in a lot of the food she receives going to waste.
“The fruits and vegetables are great, but they don't particularly last very long, so if you don't eat them in like a day or two then they go bad,” she said. “The dry goods and the canned goods: Those things are very helpful, but there's just only so much that you can do.”
Hunger advocates say that the charitable food system is not designed to be a long-term solution to food insecurity. Instead, they say programs like SNAP offer a more sustainable alternative since they allow families more consistency and choice.
Gorhan sees the reduction of SNAP allotments as a significant step backwards. “They’ve reversed something that's actually fixed a problem,” she said.
Keeping students fed through the summer
Many food-insecure families with school-aged children rely on programs like free and reduced-price school meals during the academic year, so summer vacation presents a particular challenge for them. During the pandemic, the federal government provided additional money to help feed school children during the summer months, referred to as pandemic EBT or P-EBT. Beginning next summer, this program – now renamed summer EBT – will become permanent, with qualifying families receiving an extra $40 per month for each child. But this year, the program remains opt-in for each state, and New Hampshire likely won’t be able to distribute the additional money until the end of the year.
The Summer Food Service Program steps in to address the need for food when school is not in session by providing free and nutritious meals for students. These food distribution sites are federally funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and administered on the state-level. During the pandemic, any community – regardless of its food insecurity rates – could offer these sites. But now, only areas that meet USDA criteria based on poverty levels are eligible for reimbursement for their summer meals programs.
Laura Milliken, executive director of New Hampshire Hunger solutions, says this prevents food-insecure families who live in wealthier areas from easily getting to sites.
“If there are poor kids living in those [wealthier] communities, they've got to drive longer distances to get to a program,” she said.
Meanwhile, the demand for meals at these sites is growing. Southern New Hampshire Services, which sponsors sites across Hillsborough and Rockingham counties, said it had served 4,000 more meals by mid-summer compared to the same time last year.
The sites are often more than just a place to get food, serving as a community gathering spot for families. On a recent weekday, Abukar Salat brought his children to pick up food at the Elmwood Park site in Manchester, where between 50% and 60% of children qualify for free and reduced meals.
“It's not the food. It's a lot of people out here that care about each other and kids,” he said.
Esperanza Rivera distributed food at the Hunt’s Pool site in Manchester this summer, where many families went to the splash pad to cool off. She said it is important anti-hunger resources come to places like this to make food as accessible as possible. She said the stigma of accepting something free prevented many people, especially parents, from taking meals from her at the summer’s start, but her daily presence made people more comfortable.
Rivera said she does not agree fully with the USDA’s guidelines for the program, which she said are not conducive to feeding as many hungry people as it should. Earlier in the pandemic, sites like Hunt’s pool were granted a “non-congregant waiver,” which meant it could operate on a grab-and-go model. Now, the department dictates that meal recipients in cities like Manchester eat at their distribution site, which Rivera said could discourage some.
“Some of them are already embarrassed for whatever reason when they shouldn't feel embarrassed,” she said. “But I don't think [the USDA] should put restrictions on those people.”
The sites are designed to feed only children, but Rivera will give anyone, including adults, a meal, no questions asked. When she does this, she doesn’t mark them down, so Southern New Hampshire Services — which oversees the program here — does not receive reimbursement for meals from the USDA.
“There’s so many elderly that are vulnerable, and there's so many other people that are vulnerable that are not children and teens,” she said. “So it's like, how can you pick and choose?”
The New Hampshire Food Bank oversees sites in the North Country, where rates of childhood food insecurity are some of the highest in the state, but barriers to food access there look different than in more urban areas. The USDA allowed the non-congregant waiver to remain in place for rural communities this summer, which local anti-hunger advocates say has been helpful in reducing the stigma around food insecurity.
“It's a lot easier for somebody to take food and not have to be embarrassed,” said Travis Shearer, who handed out meals at Groveton Elementary School this summer.
SNAP outreach a challenge
One of the largest barriers to food access in the state is low-enrollment in the programs that do exist, said Milliken. As of 2021, only 50% of people in New Hampshire who qualify for SNAP and only 44% who qualify for WIC, a program for new mothers and infants, were enrolled. Local advocates say this is in part because the state has lacked a SNAP outreach program since 2017. But advocates are hopeful those numbers will improve soon, since the New Hampshire Food Bank was contracted by the state in May to revive the program.
Another aspect of food insecurity is not just access to enough food but to healthy food. The state offers two programs, Granite State Market Match and Double Up Food Bucks, for SNAP participants designed to offer more nutritious options by doubling the amount of money they can spend on locally grown fruits and vegetables. Still advocates say very few people are even aware that these programs exist and often assume places like farmers markets are too expensive.
Morgan Morani, community engagement programs manager for Seacoast Eat Local, estimated that as low as one percent of SNAP participants partake in Granite State Market Match or Double Up Food Bucks.
“There’s not adequate communication [with] individuals who actually receive SNAP that these benefits are available to them and where they can actually use it,” she said.
Liponis says the Food Bank plans to raise awareness about these additional benefits in its outreach program, which it is still in the process of fully planning and implementing.
Milliken said New Hampshire Hunger Solutions and its partners are advocating to change legislation to more closely resemble the pandemic-era support programs, but in the meantime she emphasized the importance of making sure people know the resources that are out there.
“All of us in the state need to think about what are the resources available? Are we using them efficiently?” Milliken said. “How can we get the word out so that nobody needs to go hungry?”
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.