Valley News – Upper Valley food pantries brace for increased demand as pandemic stretches into winter

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More than seven months after the novel coronavirus came to the Twin States, food pantries throughout the Upper Valley are preparing for a growing demand from needy families as winter approaches and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take an economic toll.

Now that colder weather is settling in, providers are worried that they will see the need for food increase as struggling families must also pay to heat their homes and a second relief package from the federal government remains elusive.

“I’m projecting that we’re going to have an increase of guests due to the cold and lack of daylight. I think people are going to have to make some decisions about heating fuel and groceries,” said Stephanie Schell, Plainfield’s director of community resources, who helps organize weekly food pickups.

Prior to the pandemic, about 12 to 15 people stopped by each week. That number has risen to as many as 50.

“I’m hoping they will choose to pay their fuel bill and come to us to get food,” she said.

That concern is shared by Cindy Stevens, executive director of the Claremont Soup Kitchen.

“People were able to sustain a little better, but I think we’re definitely going to see that the need is going to be there again with these benefits ending,” she said, referring to the lack of federal aid and the evaporation of added unemployment payments. “Even last week I was seeing people who hadn’t been here in over a year, and we’re still seeing new faces as well.”

At the start of the pandemic, the nonprofit organization saw a huge increase in need.

“It did seem like things got a little better and steady when the added unemployment benefits kicked in, but we are now seeing an increase again,” Stevens said. “Not as dramatic as when it first happened, but we are seeing some of our numbers creep back up again.”

Traditionally, October, November and December tend to be the busiest months for the Claremont Soup Kitchen. Over the summer, around 40 people picked up meals each night. Since fall set in, that number has risen to 70, though that’s similar to pre-pandemic numbers.

“We absolutely see an increase in the winter months, and I do see that it could be definitely more of a struggle this year with people trying to keep their home and now they have that added expense with heating,” Stevens said.

The continued need for food assistance was evident on Thursday when around 250 cars stopped by the New Hampshire Food Bank’s mobile food pantry at Monadnock Park in Claremont. The event started at 11 a.m., but the first patron arrived from Charlestown at 6 a.m.

“This is a demand the likes of which we have not seen in a long, long time,” said Emily Mazzoni, agency relations coordinator with the food bank, a food relief program run by Catholic Charities NH. “We usually do one mobile food pantry per month, but in October we’ve been doing three a week.”

Last week the Food Bank also held mobile food pantries in Concord and Littleton, but Thursday was the first time the relief charity had visited Claremont. Food boxes, which contained lettuce, onions, sausage, hot dogs and a gallon of milk, were supplied through a program of the USDA. Recipients were allowed one food box per vehicle.

Heather West, of Claremont, who was sitting in her car waiting for the signal to pull forward, said she had her own business cleaning houses “but I can’t do that with COVID” and has been out of work since the pandemic began.

“I can’t get new customers, and old customers have canceled,” said West, 39. “I’m totally broke.”

West said she’s been relying on family members, food stamps and the occasional visit to a soup kitchen to feed herself and her two daughters, ages 13 and 3 (she has three “grown-up” sons who do not live with her but “they still come by and like to eat”).

Michelle Decowski, of Claremont, who had her 6-year-old daughter with her in the back seat of the car, said she had to stop working at the general store in Washington, N.H., “to homeschool my daughter because of COVID.”

With her husband out of work since June — he only began a new job last week — money has been tight and the food box will be helpful.

“We’re just slowly getting everything back to normal,” Decowski said.

The community network used to get food to people in need has grown and strengthened since the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The organization at the center of it all is Norwich-based Willing Hands, which was in the midst of a capital campaign to expand in order to bring more fresh produce to people in need.

But that mission has taken on increased urgency in the pandemic.

“We just said we’ll increase the number of recipients we work with. For the first time ever, we started purchasing food,” said Gabe Zoerheide, executive director of the nonprofit Willing Hands, which distributes donated food from area farms and businesses to residents in need throughout the Upper Valley. “This spring we added about 15 organizations. We also increased our deliveries to existing organizations. We added staff. We leased a truck. We actually accelerated the capital campaign due to the pandemic.”

Last year, Willing Hands took in and distributed 530,000 pounds of food. This year, it is on track to take in up to 750,000 pounds, about a 40% increase.

Willing Hands is now asking for donations to its $1.8 million campaign, which could grow to $2 million. The organization began publicizing the campaign at the start of October as it neared 80% of its goal, Zoerheide said. Much of the money will go toward infrastructure, food storage and paying off the mortgage on the Norwich site where the organization also grows food.

Willing Hands last year bought a 10-acre site and warehouse off Route 5 north of downtown Norwich that previously had been home to an Agway store and then a Suburban Propane branch.

“We had raised enough money on the fundraiser that when the pandemic came we started making improvements because the community needed it now,” Zoerheide said.

New food programs in Fairlee, Vershire and other towns also sprang up to assist residents who were struggling due to job losses, among other challenges.

While Willing Hands has increased the amount of food that it delivers to organizations such as Listen Community Services and the Upper Valley Haven, it is also expanding its reach in smaller communities.

“We’ve also tried to geographically distribute the food farther out because there’s probably even greater need the farther you get from the center of the Upper Valley,” Zoerheide said.

The Vershire Food Shelf is one of those distribution points. It was started in response to the pandemic by Helping Hands, which operates under VerShare.

“We just thought that, when people were losing their jobs and not working, there would be a need,” said Zanni Lacey, who coordinates the food shelf with Tonya Gunn. “I thought it was going to grow more when people stopped getting the $600-a-week unemployment, but it didn’t really change. It’s been consistent five to six (families) a week.”

In addition to getting food from Willing Hands, the food shelf in Vershire relies on donations from community members.

“I have learned how good it feels to help people in need without asking any questions,” Lacey said. “We don’t turn anyone down. It just feels really wonderful to help people during times like this.”

Valley News Staff Writer John Lippman contributed to this report. Liz Sauchelli can be reached at or 603-727-3221.

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