Catholic Charities Report

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Rethinking Hunger in New Hampshire

By Gary Bouchard

“Nobody wants to be standing in line for food.”

This simple observation by Eileen Groll Liponis, executive director of the New Hampshire Food Bank, reflects how, with encouragement and guidance from two national resources, the NH Food Bank is rethinking how it approaches its mission to help Granite Staters experiencing food insecurity.

During 2021, NH Food Bank, which is a program of Catholic Charities New Hampshire, worked with 400 agencies to distribute 17 million pounds of food, providing 14 million meals to people. The numbers are impressive, but increasingly Eileen and her team are focused less on numbers and more on the people they serve, and those who serve those people.

“Our biggest enemies are shame and stigma,” says Eileen, “and the more we can take that away and meet the people where they are, the more successful we can be as a food bank.”

Reducing the shame and stigma clients feel requires Eileen and her staff answer many challenging mission-centered questions every day: How can we try to reach our food insecure population in more nutritious and holistic ways? How can we make our clients more comfortable? How do we ensure that they are treated with dignity and respect? How do we provide them with choice so they can pick the food they want to feed their family? How do we help inform them about nutritious choices they can make?

Often the answers to these questions result in practical steps, like making sure someone can locate a food pantry without having to speak English or making it easier for them to fill out a SNAP application. Other times it’s making it possible for clients to double-up their buying power at farmer’s markets or increasing the capacities of pantries with double-door refrigeration, so they can store fresh produce.

“We have been working to really change and increase the product mix, to make available more locally grown, fresh produce, lean proteins, low salt, sugar-free … products,” Eileen says. “It feels so good to tell a family, ‘You can take home a dozen ears of corn grown by a local farmer.’”

In helping to transform how the NH Food Bank does its work, Eileen is guided and inspired by the book, “Reinventing Food Banks and Pantries,” by Katie S. Martin, an experienced leader in the field. Eileen recommends and even gives away free copies of the book to the leaders of the agencies that the NH Food Bank serves.

“We are really rethinking our work from here at the Food Bank out to the agencies and down to the client,” Eileen says. “We’re only as strong as our clients, and the more we can empower them the better we can fulfill our mission.”

Tara Westenhiser, NH Food Bank’s programs outreach coordinator, is responsible for the NH Food Bank’s Nutrition Pantry Program and Summer Meals programs, as well as Cooking Matters, which teaches low-income families how to make nutritious meals on a budget. She has begun to help transform the pantries NH Food Bank supplies by incorporating the trauma-informed practices of Leah’s Pantry, a California organization that now has a national reach. Tara and her team learned about Leah’s Pantry from their colleagues at Good Shepherd Food Bank in Maine. It is a client-focused program that helps pantries transform their operations to put clients at the center of everything, so that they not only have access to food, but access to food that is healthy for them and access to food from their own cultures.

The program also encourages pantries to consider how trauma may have affected people’s relationship to food and consider how sometimes people’s reactions to food may be different because of things that happened in their past. Leah’s Nutrition Pantry Program emphasizes six focus areas: nutrition education, environment, cultural and dietary accommodations, community connections, inventory, and policies and procedures.

Integration of the principles taught by Leah’s Pantry is currently in the pilot phase.

“We start by building a relationship with the pantry, learning about their work and what kinds of changes they want to make,” Tara explains. “Then we visit the pantry and do a pre-assessment, an inventory of their products and services. We then work on a client-needs assessment: Why do they do things the way they do? Is it based on things they know from their clients or things they just think they know about their clients? We work with the pantry to develop a work plan for the six focus areas. They have the ultimate say in what changes they want to implement with our support.”

Three NH Food Bank-supported pantries are currently in the implementation phase; one is in the assessment process.

“It’s really about changing people’s way of thinking, not just about feeding people,” says Tara. “If feeding people would solve the problem, the problem likely would have been solved by now.”

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