Food pantry serves summer nourishment for local children
By HADLEY BARNDOLLAR
The Portsmouth Herald
AP Member Exchange
PORTSMOUTH, N.H. (AP) — Cardboard boxes brimming with fruit and vegetables stretched across folding tables, as the smell of rain rose from the pavement of the Gosling Meadows public housing neighborhood.
Despite pending lightning and a passing downpour, families formed a line holding plastic bags and pulling wagons. It was a late Wednesday afternoon, and the Gather truck had just arrived 20 minutes earlier.
Hands, small and large, reached for carrots, bananas, potatoes and blueberries. They shuffled down the line, eventually reaching the meat and dairy pick-up. Along with gallons of milk, this week they received local ground beef from Whippoorwill Farm in South Hampton.
Gather food pantry, the largest hunger relief organization on the Seacoast, has provided more than 5,300 children and their families across the region with food through its 2019 Meals 4 Kids program. Between weekly stops in Portsmouth, Seabrook, Hampton and Kittery, Maine, the pantry is currently averaging nearly 500 kids per week, and at the program’s new pilot location in Rochester, it has served 900 children this summer.
Meals 4 Kids provides area school-aged children with a week’s worth of food, once a week, during school vacations and the summer months, seeking to fill the void for food insecure kids and their families dependent on school breakfasts and lunches.
This year is significant for Meals 4 Kids, as its on pace to see the highest number of individuals it’s ever served in one year, since starting the program six years ago. While food insecurity in the region continues to grow, Gather employees attribute their program’s latest success to increased outreach efforts, a new distribution model and simply getting the word out.
“The thing I love about us is you don’t have to prove a damn thing,” said Gather’s Associate Executive Director Seneca Bernard, noting communities need to qualify for the federal USDA summer lunch program, for example, requiring a certain display of need.
Bernard noted the populations Gather serves are used to having to “prove” need, so coming to a Meals 4 Kids stop where they’re asked only for their name and some basic demographic information is refreshing and accessible. It makes people want to come back, Bernard said.
Because of this, Meals 4 Kids’ participation rates are twice the national average for children’s hunger relief programs.
This year, the Meals 4 Kids stops feature a new distribution model, where the food selections are set up like a farmers market. In years prior, shoppers were given pre-packed bags. Bernard said the “you pick” model has encouraged more children to be involved in their food selections, too.
The organization also implemented a texting program to remind families of locations and times for pickups each week.
“It’s really about listening to what the people have wanted,” said Gather Executive Director Deb Anthony. “It’s supposed to be convenient for them because at the end of the day, the goal is getting the food to the families. These increases are saying that the word is getting out, and people like this model.”
Amber Parrish, a Gosling resident, comes every week to the Meals 4 Kids stop in her neighborhood. She has three children and recently lost her job.
“It definitely helps with meal planning and supplies that I don’t have,” Parrish said this week. “Because the kids are home more often in the summer, they’re eating like cows. This helps a lot.”
She was shopping with her son Jayelyn Acosta, 6, who helped his mom lug their bags back home.
Eddie Marquez, wearing a T-shirt that read “be a nice human,” was picking up groceries for a handicapped family next door. He made jokes with some of the neighborhood boys, who hustled around on their skateboards — the Gather stops naturally become a community gathering spot.
Emily Nalen and her 13-year-old daughter Addison Nalen pulled a wagon home, filled with corn, juice boxes, canned vegetables and peanut butter. “I like it better now that they do take what you need,” Emily said. “We’re going to use everything in here.”
When asked how helpful the weekly food delivery is for their family, young Addison smiled, “I’m fed.”
Bernard said the highest need locations are consistently Gosling Meadows, the Seabrook Recreation Center and the Chamberlain Street School in Rochester.
State Department of Education data from the 2018-2019 school year shows more than 20% of Portsmouth school-aged children are eligible for free or reduced lunch, or “food insecure.”
But in Rochester, for example, that number is more than 45%. At William Allen Elementary School, of its 250 students, 149 are food insecure, equating to 59%. Anthony said after a successful first year in Rochester, serving 990 kids across six weeks, Gather plans to continue the program there next summer.
Anthony said it’s not uncommon to see young kids shopping alone for their entire family. This week, a 7-year-old boy picked out groceries and carried them back to his apartment with the help of one of Gather’s volunteers; the “dairy boys,” as the call themselves — local high school and college students who help with set-up and distribution.
“It’s really helpful work and impacts a lot of people,” said volunteer Jack Madden of Rye, a Portsmouth High graduate. “To see the satisfaction when they finish getting all of their food…”
With funding from Harvard Pilgrim Health Plan, Gather is working to increase volunteer numbers and rescue, or “glean,” more food that would have otherwise gone to waste, such as the cucumbers, squash and lettuce distributed this week, all of which came from local farms or nearby grocery stores.
Information from: Portsmouth Herald, http://www.seacoastonline.com