The Fall Mountain Food Shelf is tucked away on a wooded two-lane highway in rural Sullivan County. But on a sunny morning in mid-March, it saw a steady stream of cars.
Mary Lou Huffling, the food shelf’s director of 40-plus years, walked around with a clipboard, checking each visitor’s household size. A handful of volunteers busied themselves in a room stocked with juices, oils, peanut butter, pistachios, flour, toiletries, oats, raisins, cans of chicken, cans of soup, carrots, onions, peppers, potatoes, eggs, milk, yogurt and a variety of frozen meats. Every so often, a volunteer wheeled an overflowing cart out to the parking lot, with boxes of food destined for hatchbacks and pickup beds.
“Without that, you can’t afford to buy nothing today,” Joe Augustinowicz of Unity said, standing outside the food shelf with his truck and his dog Tiger. “If you go in the store, I don’t care what it is you buy, it’s outrageous. I mean, everything’s gone up.”
New Hampshire is relatively well off, and its rate of food insecurity is much lower than the national average. But many Granite Staters still struggle to consistently access enough food to keep them and their families healthy and active.
Rates of poverty — the biggest risk factor for food insecurity — vary significantly across the state, as do transportation-related barriers. And a recent analysis found that one of the most effective ways to increase food access, SNAP benefits, reach fewer Granite Staters compared to their peers in neighboring states.
Meanwhile, prices of food and fuel are rising just as various forms of pandemic-related government assistance fade.
Earlier in the pandemic, the Fall Mountain Food Shelf sometimes served 10 or 20 families per day, Huffling said. Lately it’s been more like 30. “The need is going up again,” she said.
Earlier this year, Alicia Desimone was receiving $264 in food stamps — and stretching it to feed three people.
A Winchester resident in her mid-50s, Desimone was buying groceries for herself, an adult son with special needs and his roommate.
“I have enough to make sure that my son has food,” she said in mid-February. “I get myself very little.”
Desimone said she has diabetes and other health issues, but couldn’t afford to eat as healthy as she would like. Every time she went shopping, prices seemed to rise.
“I like yogurt, I like cottage cheese, I like salads — you know, stuff like that,” she said. “But feeding my son right now, I just, I can’t do it, because the price of meat is ridiculous.”
When people can’t consistently get enough food for a healthy, active lifestyle, researchers call it food insecurity — something that affected one in 10 U.S. households in 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The biggest cause is not being able to afford it. According to pre-pandemic data, more than one-third of households below the federal poverty line — about $25,000 for a family of four at the time — were food-insecure. It’s not limited to people living in official poverty, though, affecting as many as one in five households earning twice that threshold.
Lack of transportation is another factor, particularly in rural areas where people without cars have few ways of getting to a store that might be two towns away.
Food insecurity can have serious impacts on households, said Jess Carson, a research assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy. “That might mean folks aren’t getting the kinds of foods or the mix of foods that they need to stay healthy.”
Studies have linked food insecurity to a range of negative health impacts, particularly among children. Adults in food-insecure families — as Desimone’s experience illustrates – often sacrifice their own well-being for their children’s sake, Carson said. “Parents are very willing to give up on their own meals, to eat nothing or to eat the sort of last-choice foods in the households, so they can maintain a kind of semblance of normalcy for their kids.”
From 2018 to 2020, the most recent data available from the USDA, New Hampshire had the nation’s lowest rate of food insecurity, though it still affected 5.7 percent of Granite State households. More recent data from the Census’ Household Pulse Survey estimates that, for the 12 days ending April 11, tens of thousands of New Hampshire adults lived in households that sometimes or often didn’t have enough food in the past week.
And it looks different from place to place.
“Our overall food insecurity rates are pretty low,” Carson said. “But we are actually a pretty diverse state inside New Hampshire, and there’s a lot of differences within the state between Rye and Colebrook, or Rumney and Conway.”
Rates of poverty are higher in the rural North Country, as well as parts of Manchester and Nashua and areas in and around Claremont, Rochester, Franklin and Keene. And in sparsely populated parts of the state, grocery stores are fewer, placing an extra burden on people without cars and making shopping trips more expensive due to the cost of gas.
According to a December 2020 publication by the N.H. Fiscal Policy Institute examining poverty from 2014-2018 in the state, children, people living with disabilities, and those identifying as a race or ethnicity other than white and non-Hispanic experience poverty at higher rates than estimates for the state overall.
NHFPI also found that “Households with children and a single parent present also faced higher levels of poverty; for example, approximately one in three households headed by a single wom[a]n with a child or children under five years old present were in poverty during this period.”
The Fall Mountain Food Shelf sits on the border of Cheshire and Sullivan counties in southwestern New Hampshire. The area is hilly and forested, with twisting two-lane roads that connect village centers and general stores. According to UNH’s Carsey School, around a fifth to a third of residents are below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. For a family of four in New Hampshire that amount is $55,000.
Fewer people were visiting the food shelf earlier in the pandemic, as the federal government sent out stimulus checks and temporarily expanded aid programs like food stamps and unemployment, Huffling said. But its numbers have been going up again.
As the infusion of aid has receded, the costs of essentials like groceries, gas and heating oil have climbed. That’s strained the budgets of low-and middle-income people, especially those who commute to Claremont or Keene. Huffling said she’s visited seniors who keep their thermostat in the 50s. “They can’t afford more,” she said.
Food affordability isn’t just about the price of groceries. A household’s other expenses can reduce its budget for meals — and food costs, in turn, can squeeze out other important items. One study found chronically ill adults experiencing food insecurity were more likely to under-use medication because of its cost.
“Families are facing a lot of pressures from all sorts of angles right now,” Carson said. “Food prices are definitely increasing, but so are other costs that will eat into their budget that will eventually affect their ability to afford food.”
Making sure households have the financial resources to afford all of those necessities is key to alleviating food insecurity, Carson said.
Increasing access to food stamps — formally, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits — is one proven way of doing so. Research has found enrollment in SNAP reduces food insecurity and is associated with better health outcomes.
But SNAP benefits don’t reach as many Granite Staters as they could, according to a recent analysis by the N.H. Fiscal Policy Institute.
In New Hampshire, around 30 percent of people below 200 percent of the poverty line received SNAP benefits in 2019, according to the institute’s analysis. By contrast, the number was 40 percent in Maine, 45 percent in Vermont and 54 percent in Massachusetts.
The report linked that to two factors — narrower eligibility and less outreach.
The federal baseline for SNAP eligibility is 130 percent of the poverty line, but guidelines allow states to go beyond that. According to the N.H. Fiscal Policy Institute, Vermont and Maine extend eligibility to 185 percent of the poverty line, and Massachusetts goes up to 200 percent. New Hampshire also sets the limit at 185 percent — but only for households with at least one dependent child, a requirement the other states lack.
Additionally, the Fiscal Policy Institute noted, New Hampshire has lacked a USDA-approved plan for outreach to boost SNAP enrollment since its last one expired in 2017. Such plans allow states to split outreach costs with the federal government.
Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts all had outreach plans in 2019, the time frame studied by the Fiscal Policy Institute. The report noted that Vermont’s plan was much more expansive than Maine’s and suggested that could explain why SNAP reached more Vermonters, despite the two states’ similar eligibility rules.
New Hampshire officials say they’re working on it.
A law that passed the N.H. Senate earlier this year, S.B. 404, would direct the Department of Health and Human Services to develop a SNAP outreach plan.
“The fact that this many children and adults were not enrolled in SNAP, that means that we left on the table $37.9 million in federal funds that could have flowed into our economy and addressed food insecurity,” said state Sen. Becky Whitley, D-Hopkinton, the bill’s main sponsor. “Not only are individuals not getting the food benefits they need, but we have also let go accompanying economic stimulus to our local economies and our local grocery stores.”
Meanwhile, Marti Ilg, deputy director of the Division of Economic and Housing Stability at DHHS, said the agency was already working to develop an outreach plan before that bill originated. The department has been gathering data and, later this spring, expects to issue a request for proposals seeking an outside organization to implement the plan.
So far, the department’s surveys of stakeholders suggest the barriers to increased enrollment include people not knowing if they qualify for food-assistance programs, or not being aware that such programs are available to begin with. Assistance filling out applications is another element, Ilg said.
“The ultimate goal is for everybody to know that these benefits are there for everyone, and to normalize the access, make it as easy as possible,” she said.
Accommodating various cultural needs is also a solution to increasing access, especially for immigrant communities.
“We have such a diversity living in the downtown Manchester area,” said Stephanie Savard, chief external relations officer of the nonprofit Families in Transition, which operates a food pantry there. “What we know is that immigrant and refugee populations tend to land in that Center City, because then they have access to a lot more resources.”
Many central Manchester residents can walk to the pantry, she said, and Families in Transition has tried to make it welcoming. In 2020, the organization moved it from a space next to its emergency shelter to its own, bright-green facility on Lake Street. That has allowed the pantry to expand and simulate the experience of a grocery store, complete with carts and baskets.
“People can now walk up to a bin of whatever the fruits are today, and choose what they want,” she said. “If they don’t like bananas in their family, they’re not gonna have to take bananas.”
The organization is also working to source a wider variety of foods from different cultures, to meet the community’s diverse needs, she said, and become more trauma-informed in its practices.
“How do we make sure that people who’ve had trauma experiences in the past are comfortable coming in, [and we] are meeting them where they’re at?” she said. “It’s not just about getting food, it’s about the relationship.”
Jessica Gorhan, deputy director of the advocacy organization NH Hunger Solutions, previously worked as director of the Greater Nashua Food Council, and continues to advise food-access groups around the state.
She said the Trump administration’s changes to the “public charge rule” for those seeking admission to the U.S. or permanent residency deterred many immigrants from accessing nutrition assistance and other benefits — and that still has an impact, even though the changes have since been repealed.
“It hasn’t been in place since the Biden administration took place,” she said. “But still, a lot of people are afraid of applying for programs in fear of being deported. So that is another impact, is the trust in the system.”
Those who work on the issue say stigma about receiving benefits — or a sense that others need them more — may also contribute to lower uptake.
“Older folks in particular tend to say, ‘I don’t really need that, somebody else could use that more than me,’ ” Carson said. ” ‘Or I’m afraid I’d be taking it from somebody else,’ and there’s this sort of sense that, like, ‘somebody must be doing worse than me.’ ”
To be clear, she said, SNAP benefits are available to everyone who qualifies, and one person getting them does not affect whether anyone else does.
Gorhan said one effective message is to stress that not only are they not taking benefits away from someone else, they’re bringing money into their local community.
“They’re actually giving back to their community,” she said, “because when they do participate, it means they get to spend more at the grocery store or their local corner market, and then that gives back to the local economy.”
In different parts of New Hampshire, coalitions of local stakeholders have formed to tackle the problem in their own communities.
One example is the Monadnock Children’s Food Access Alliance, which conducted a detailed analysis of the resources and gaps in the Monadnock Region last year. The group and its partners are now implementing an action plan that includes mobile food-pantry events and other attempts to reach residents in more remote areas where transportation is a barrier.
While small towns don’t have the services or walkability of bigger cities and regional hubs like Keene, Carson noted that their close-knit networks and community institutions like libraries can be an asset. That’s something the Monadnock Region group is taking into account, Roe-Ann Tasoulas, the director of the Monadnock Farm and Community Coalition, said.
“It’s really about getting SNAP and other nutrition-program outreach into the hands of people where they are,” Tasoulas told The Keene Sentinel in January. “We meet them where they are at. They are at the libraries, which works as child care for many because they can’t afford child care after school. It’s at the WIC clinics. It’s at the heating-assistance offices.”
Ultimately, Carson said, food insecurity is linked to economic insecurity more broadly. Making sure families can meet their basic needs, whether through jobs that pay a living wage or other supports, will “certainly support people’s ability to spend more money on food and get the food they need.”
It’s a tenuous time. As Ilg pointed out, much of the expanded public assistance extended during the pandemic have expired or are on track to do so soon. Enhanced SNAP benefits — which are going to more than 30,000 New Hampshire households — were recently extended though May.
Ilg imagines a scenario where Enhanced SNAP benefits end and people are caught off guard.
“[People would] go to the grocery store and the food prices [would be] double,” Ilg said. “So it really could hit hard.”
At the Fall Mountain Food Shelf, volunteer Eve Pardee of Langdon said people don’t realize how many of their neighbors are one rent hike or medical bill away from crisis. She’s seen that first-hand in her 15 years volunteering there — and the need is rising now.
“We’re needed,” she said. “If anything happened to this place, there’d be a lot of people in great distress.”
Huffling recalled town meetings 40 years ago where people needing food assistance were required to show up to make their requests. Many, she said, avoided asking for help out of a fear of humiliation or shame.
Today, most of the food at the Fall Mountain Food Shelf comes through donations with some grant money as well, and Huffling is grateful at the way her community has come together to help others.
“The local people have been so awesomely supportive,” Huffling said. “We’ve never run out of money or food, it always comes.”
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative as part of our race and equity project. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.