When was the last time you were hungry? I don’t mean standing in line for Sunday Brunch at the local diner and wow doesn’t that short stack of pancakes look amazing kind of hungry. I’m talking about a distracting ache inside your stomach, a constant dull pain making you lightheaded, and an anxiety that spins inside, leaving you cranky, weak and miserable.
Right now I’m not thinking about eating because I’m too busy brushing the powdered potatoes off my shirt and wrestling with a carton of juice boxes that won’t close, wondering whether the crease on that can of corn is bad enough for me to toss it in the garbage pile. I’m at the New Hampshire Food Bank near Manchester in the Salvage Sorting Room with a dozen volunteers combing through pallets of food. I’ve joined the morning ritual, examining hundreds of pounds of boxes of reclaimed goods from local supermarkets, making sure what we have is good enough to pass onto the tens of thousands of our neighbors who aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from.
The numbers are sobering. There are close to 1.4 million residents in New Hampshire, and it’s estimated that one in nine suffers from food insecurity – not starvation like you’d see on the news from war-torn refugee camps – but very real and very much right next door. Defined as a household which at some point in the year had limited or uncertain access to food, food insecurity is a huge problem both in New Hampshire and across the country. Some suggest there are over 48 million Americans who suffer from food insecurity. For a society that’ll drive 500 miles for a McRib and then build a website about it, we certainly get things backwards sometimes.
The New Hampshire Food Bank was founded in 1984, and now in its thirtieth year, it’s never been busier. “We delivered 8.5 million pounds of food last year and we’re on track to deliver about 10.5 million this year,” Bruce Wilson, the Bank’s Director of Operations tells me. Nancy Mellitt, my host for the day and the Director of Development, chimes in, “That’s about 8.4 million meals, and we think there are another 24 million meals we could be serving if we had the resources.” That’s a lot of hungry Granite staters.
This isn’t a corner food pantry with tidy rows of canned beans and a quaint pyramid of feed sacks – the Food Bank is a sophisticated distribution hub and cavernous warehouse that collects and distributes food to over 400 local agencies across the state. As its slogan attests, “We Feed the Programs That Feed the State.” Half of all the food and goods the soup kitchens, shelters, pantries and outreach programs distribute comes through these doors. Forklifts move pallets of food as eighteen-wheelers drop off reclaimed supermarket goods, cars and vans arrive to pick up the day’s orders while quality control employees inspect items before they leave the warehouse while administrators process the dozens of online orders that come in weekly.
Nancy introduces me to Erin D’Loughy, the Bank’s Volunteer Coordinator, who puts me to work in the Salvage Sorting Room with twelve or so determined and focused volunteers. The room’s filled with rows of steel-topped tables where the donated food’s inspected, sorted and weighed, and I join the sorting line. I learn quickly that no one’s here to chat. Box after box of assorted items – everything from flour to sauces to stuffing to paper towels, Pop Tarts, coffee, cereal, cold medicine, pasta and beef stew – fly down the rollers for inspection. Long-time volunteers Bo and David give me a quick tutorial, the prevailing advice being, “If in doubt, throw it out.” We grab the boxes, check cans for dents, confirm expiration dates, see if we can save ripped bags of flour (we can’t) and set aside anything that can be taped or reasonably repackaged. As an aside, would the owner of the Capri Sun Corporation of America please get in touch with the Quaker Oatmeal people and confer on making better boxes? There isn’t a single box of those items that remains intact as we sort.
We toss about fifteen percent of what comes down the line, and Mel Gosselin, the Food Bank’s Executive Director, who’s arrived to ensure I’m not making a mess of things, tells me, “Everything we throw out gets picked up by pig farmers in the area. That saves us money.” During a break, she explains that eighty five percent of everything in the warehouse handles has been donated. “We’re not a state agency and we’re not a federal agency – we don’t get any funding from the government to run this place.” It’s easy to see that this entire effort – from the long-time volunteers to the steady whirr and beeping of forklifts and trucks to the lean, talented staff that runs the center – is about New Hampshire taking care of itself. “And I wonder all the time if we’re failing or are we doing what we can with what we have,” Mel says as the sorting restarts.
With the salvage sorting done, I meet Paul Barker, the Warehouse Manager, who sets me up with Mike Salinas. Cordial, meticulous and a wizard of the forklift, Mike says, “Let’s fill this order.” Paul reminds me I can’t drive the forklift, an excellent idea as I have visions of smashed jars of barbeque sauce and kidney beans covering the warehouse floor. Mike zips the forklift across the concrete while I pick the items – this order’s for the Claremont Soup Kitchen, and I stack cartons of condiments, coffee, jelly, juice, freeze-dried fish and a dozen other items. As we head into the deep freezer, Mike insists I wear a loaner coat. “It’s a lot colder than you think,” he says as I search for a few cases of Hot Pockets and apple pies, and he’s right. It’s minus 1 in here, the cold clearing out any of the exhaustion in my legs or head. Mike moves the pallets into a staging area for tomorrow’s pickup, color codes and labels the items, and he’s off to pick another order.
Before the day ends, Nancy takes me upstairs to meet Chef Jayson McCarter. In addition to being a vital cog in the state’s machinery to fight hunger, the Food Bank runs a culinary job training program teaching underemployed or unemployed adults how to prep, cook, clean and manage themselves in a commercial kitchen. “We train fifteen students for eight weeks – for free,” Jayson tells me as enormous pile of cauliflower is wheeled towards a steam-jacketed kettle, more than I’ll ever eat in my lifetime. It will be part of some of the 3,000 meals Chef Jayson, his assistant Chef Paul Morrison and these busy students will prepare for distribution across the state. In addition to the thousands of pounds of fresh produce, frozen meat and groceries given away every day, the Food Bank prides itself on filling kids’ bellies with hot, healthy meals prepared by dedicated pros.
The Food Bank doesn’t waste time with the politics of hunger – not once did Nancy, Bruce, Mike or anyone else suggest why someone was hungry. Politicians and pundits on both sides of the circus tent we call government today point fingers, confident they know the root causes of this growing food insecurity or blame the recipients for somehow cheating the rest of us out of something. Meanwhile, thousands of our neighbors want to fill their stomachs so they can pay better attention in school or at work or sleep at night without the worry of where breakfast’s coming from. Hungry doesn’t care about politics or opinions - hungry wants to go away forever. The New Hampshire Food Bank’s doing something about it every single day. Food insecurity for one family is a tragedy – food insecurity for tens of thousands of families is an embarrassment, and every day this place tries to eliminate that shame we should all feel while getting food to those who need it most.
Check out the New Hampshire Food Bank at www.nhfoodbank.org where you can learn about its programs, make a donation or volunteer your time.