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Season of Thanks: Area food pantries are stocking up to help out

With Thanksgiving fast approaching, area food pantries have been busy getting turkey dinners ready for their neighbors in need.

For many, this starts months in advance.

“We start preparing about three or four months before it actually happens, because I don’t have a checkbook that [I] can marvelously go out and buy [this food],” said Phoebe Bray, executive director of The Community Kitchen in Keene.

The kitchen and pantry at 37 Mechanic St. distributes donation boxes for people to use to make their own dinner at home.

Last year, Bray said, the organization delivered just over 1,500 dinners, which contain a frozen turkey, fresh and canned vegetables, boxed stuffing, cranberry sauce, soup, bread rolls and a baked pie.

“If you’re on a minimum budget, then to put on a huge family meal will possibly break your food budget for the month,” Bray said. “By giving them the absolute basics of a Thanksgiving dinner, we like to think we’re helping the family.”

And the need for this boost exists in places people might not expect.

“We do have abjectly poor people, but it could be your next-door neighbor who is just having a temporary glitch in their finances. We have people who’ve had a major repair, where it wipes their savings or maxes out their credit cards, and they don’t have a spare dime,” Bray explained. “We are where they can come for food for a few weeks. It’s that sort of story that I wish we were better at telling.”

Over in Troy, The Helping Hand Center at 1 Depot St. starts circulating signup sheets for boxes in early October, according to Managing Director Jeanne Drugg.

The center — which serves as both a food pantry and second-hand clothing store for residents of Troy and Fitzwilliam — also gets names from local churches of people who may need a box.

It plans to distribute about 55 boxes this year, Drugg said, a day or two before Thanksgiving. In addition to the turkey dinner, she said recipients are also given their typical weekly food-donation box.

Fall Mountain Food Shelf, at 122 Route 12A in Langdon, also starts gearing up for Thanksgiving in October.

Director Mary Lou Huffling said plans call for just over 1,000 boxes to be given out this year in the Fall Mountain region of Sullivan and Cheshire counties. But those who sign up for a box need to pick it up, she noted.

Cold River Materials, a construction company at 29 Oliver Road in Swanzey, donated space to the food shelf to prepare the boxes and hand them out, Huffling said.

The boxes — which contain similar items as those from The Community Kitchen and Helping Hand, aside from offering chickens for smaller families — will be packed on Nov. 22, she added, and available for pickup on Nov. 23.

Bray said that The Community Kitchen also hosts a Thanksgiving dinner on Nov. 27 from 5 to 6:20 p.m., served each year by the N.H. State Troopers of Troop C.

While the boxes require a financial verification, she said anyone is able to enjoy the sit-down meal.

Bray noted, however, that this typically draws only about 80 people, because there are “a lot of free Thanksgiving dinners in the area.”

Others, on Thanksgiving day, include meals at the Keene Assembly of God, at 121 Park Ave., from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; the Ralph Rines Memorial Dinner, at 5 Holbrook Ave. in West Swanzey, starting at noon; and the Eagles Club, at 115 Church St. in Keene, from noon to 3 p.m.

The Grace Christian Fellowship Church, at 81 Ashuelot St. in Winchester, is also offering a Thanksgiving dinner starting at 6 p.m. on Nov. 24.

To provide these services, the pantries agreed volunteers are key.

“We could never do this without the volunteers and the support we get from our community,” Drugg said.

Huffling added that it’s encouraging to see a younger demographic show interest in volunteerism.

“... We have to pass the torch, ya know?” she said. “[For] all of us older volunteers, it’s good to have the kids enjoying it, so they will continue it during their lifetime too.”

But the abundance of those wanting to help during the holidays can also pose a challenge, according to Bray and Drugg.

“We can only use so many,” Drugg explained.

“I wish they’d spread [their service] throughout the year,” Bray said. “... January, February and March, I’m begging people.”

The Community Kitchen can be reached at 352-3200, The Helping Hand Center at 242-3007, and the Fall Mountain Food Shelf at 835-2283.

A list of food pantries in and around the Monadnock Region is available at www.foodpantries.org/ci/nh-keene.

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Keene to study free morning parking plan

The pitch for free morning parking in downtown Keene is still on the table after an advocate of the idea made the case before the City Council’s finance, organization and personnel committee.

Roger Weinreich, a board member of the Keene Downtown Group, presented the proposal at Thursday’s committee meeting, after the group wrote a letter requesting downtown parking be gratis from 8 to 11 a.m.

The aim, according to the group, is to boost traffic for Main Street businesses.

The finance committee referred the proposal to city staff to return with a recommendation in 30 days.

Weinreich, owner of Good Fortune Jewelry on Main Street, said the downtown group had been hoping to launch free morning parking in December and try it through March. But Medard K. Kopczynski, Keene’s economic development director, said a mechanism for this was unlikely to be ready that quickly, and would still need to go through the council approval process.

Acknowledging the experimental nature of the plan and that it’s subject to change, Weinreich said the idea is to waive meter fees for those three hours on Main Street and Central Square, though the two-hour limit for each spot would still be enforced.

“We’d start to see what happens. Do people come downtown? Do people care to come downtown?” he said.

If it’s successful, Weinreich said, the free parking could help Main Street businesses that are struggling to compete with online retailers and national chains.

Pointing out that most major businesses downtown don’t open until 10 a.m., though, Kopczynski said he’s not sure how effective a morning fee waiver would be or how its success could be accurately measured.

He said staff would need to craft such a program under city regulations and consider practical concerns, including defining how turnover would be enforced.

The group’s letter included that parking revenue was likely down in the mornings, citing anecdotal evidence of empty spaces. Kopczynski confirmed that assertion.

“And it’s also clear based on the report that we submitted to the City Council last year that the parking demand has shifted more toward the evening,” Kopczynski said.

Presented to the council and the public in June 2018, that report by city staff recommended shifting the times for paid parking to start at 9 or 10 a.m. and end at 7 p.m. on weekdays and 5 p.m. on Saturday.

Meter and kiosk fees are currently enforced Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

On-street meters cost 85 cents per hour, and off-street meters, such as those in the Gilbo Avenue lot, are 35 cents per hour. These prices went up at the beginning of this year, the first increase since November 2015. Before that, parking fees hadn’t changed since 2002.

Meter fees, along with parking-space rentals and fines, go to the city’s parking fund, which is used to enforce regulations and maintain parking areas and facilities. In the 2019-20 operating budget proposal released earlier this year, the city estimated the parking fund earned about $1.88 million in the prior year.

Kopczynski told the committee he could return to its first December meeting with more information. He also noted that city staff is slated to submit a parking master plan for the council’s consideration in the spring.