The Monadnock Region has higher rates of food insecurity than New Hampshire as a whole. And while there are various resources and organizations that can help, they haven’t always worked in a coordinated fashion, according to Roe-Ann Tasoulas, director of the Monadnock Farm and Community Coalition.
“Everybody’s been working on food access in their own way because the need is so overwhelming,” Tasoulas said.
Now, the Monadnock Children’s Food Access Alliance — a network of local organizations that grew out of a Farm and Community Coalition working group about a year ago — has a plan to enhance collaboration between those organizations and address gaps in the region’s food access infrastructure.
The Monadnock Farm and Community Coalition is a group of area businesses, nonprofits and agencies working to make the local food system more sustainable and accessible.
The food-access alliance’s plan, released last week, has more than a dozen action items aimed at achieving four objectives — increasing public awareness and use of existing programs; reducing barriers to food access; fostering acceptance of food assistance, and dignity of those who access it; and continuing the alliance’s collaboration.
The plans include more outreach at libraries and other community sites, popup events around the region with a mobile food pantry and efforts to address transportation-related obstacles.
The food access plan follows an analysis last year of the region’s assets and gaps when it comes to food access.
That report, done by the Southwest Region Planning Commission on behalf of the alliance, noted that the overall rate of food insecurity for Cheshire County in 2019 was 9.5 percent, and 12.7 percent for children — both of which were higher than the state averages of 8.8 percent and 10.9 percent, respectively.
According to the planning commission’s analysis, poverty and lack of transportation are both risk factors for food insecurity, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as a household having uncertain or limited access to enough food. That can lead to disrupted eating patterns and reducing food consumption at times.
At the same time, not everyone who qualifies for food assistance, such as SNAP benefits (i.e., food stamps), enrolls.
“The goal of the plan really was to, number one, figure out why these nutrition programs are being underused, and in order to do that, we really needed to understand more about a baseline of hunger in our region,” Tasoulas said. “Combined with a real comprehensive gap and asset analysis of all the food nutrition programs that were available, what they did, who works with whom.”
The analysis found several reasons those programs were underused, she said. Often, people didn’t know about them or didn’t understand the eligibility requirements, and so thought they didn’t qualify.
But stigma and a reluctance to accept help also played a role, Tasoulas said.
“A lot of the feedback we got is that they felt like other people needed it more than them,” she said. “… It came up so many times: ‘I, you know, I’m not as bad off as “these people.” ’ And I think ‘these people,’ in quotes, always tended to be elderly people who were isolated.”
The planning commission’s analysis included interviewing and surveying hundreds of people. Tasoulas said a key part of the process has been hearing directly from people who have experienced food insecurity and working alongside them. The alliance has formed a Food Access Council to incorporate those voices; Tasoulas said anyone dealing with these issues who is interested in advocacy should join.
Through its recently released action plan, the alliance hopes to address issues ranging from lack of awareness to transportation barriers.
One initiative, for example, is a “community marketing campaign” aimed at getting information about food-assistance programs in front of people. That will include outreach at libraries, heating-assistance offices, child care centers, clinics for the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program and other locations.
“It’s really about getting SNAP and other nutrition-program outreach into the hands of people where they are,” Tasoulas said. “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.”
Libraries, in particular, are good places to reach people in sparsely populated towns, she said.
“Libraries really are the cultural hubs of most of the rural areas in our region,” she said. “They really are. It’s where people go for so, so much beyond, you know, getting a book.”
Another effort involves the Monadnock Mobile Food Pantry. Tasoulas said this is a new program of The Community Kitchen in Keene, for which the Monadnock Farm and Community Coalition found funding to do a feasibility study.
The Food Access Alliance plans to partner with The Community Kitchen to do six to 10 popup events, focusing on towns where it’s harder to obtain food.
“Where certain counties separate, where the borders were, there were real pockets of hunger and lack of access to food” because they’re farther from hubs like Keene and Peterborough, Tasoulas said. “So we’re going to be doing some of these popup events in these towns that are really kind of like a food desert.”
The planning commission’s analysis also found that many people without cars lived in Keene, where they are dependent on buses to get to the store.
Home Healthcare, Hospice & Community Services, the nonprofit that runs Keene’s City Express bus service, has been an active participant in the food-access group’s work, said Director of Community Relations Susan Ashworth.
She noted that City Express also runs special shopping shuttles that take riders to area grocery stores.
Between the various efforts listed in the plan, Tasoulas said she sees the region making strides on this issue in the coming year.
“I think that our region is going to be experiencing and creating a foundational layer of infrastructure that is sorely needed,” she said.
That means food will be provided to those who need it, people experiencing hunger won’t have any shame or reluctance about accepting help and services will be better integrated into their lives, she said.
“It’s just creating a whole ’nother understanding of what we have available, because there’s a ton of programming here,” she said. “Again, a lot of it’s underused, and a lot of people are working on it in their own way. But there’s so much more potential if we can just kind of link arms and come together as a system and just move the needle on hunger in the region.”
Area residents can find out more about food access resources at sites.google.com/view/foodgardensmonadnock.