Sarah Harpster

In an effort to make systemic change, The Community Kitchen in Keene has created a new position aimed at addressing the root causes of hunger locally and beyond.

Sarah Harpster, who served as the food pantry’s gleaning coordinator for 10 years, is now the hunger solutions advocacy coordinator, having started in the role Monday.

And while The Community Kitchen will continue to provide food assistance to area residents through its pantry and hot-meals programs, Executive Director Phoebe Bray said this new position is a “direction that we should be moving in.”

“I think we do amazing work at The Community Kitchen, but ... our goal should be to eliminate hunger not to manage it,” she said.

Food insecurity — meaning a person doesn’t know where the next meal is coming from — is a symptom of poverty, Bray noted. It can be caused by a variety of factors, many of which stem from state or federal policies.

“We need to get everybody at the table and talk about raising the minimum wage, delivering workforce housing, affordable child care, we have to talk about transportation issues when you live in rural America,” she said.

In her gleaning role — now held by Jacob Sherwood — Harpster learned about a number of organizations nationwide that are also trying to understand hunger’s causes and attended a conference held by one of them, Closing The Hunger Gap, in 2019.

“Of course we want to do our best to give people good, quality food and make sure that’s available but also start to look at the why,” said Harpster, a Keene resident.

In 2018, just over 7,000 Cheshire County residents were considered food insecure, according to the latest data from Feeding America, a national nonprofit focused on addressing hunger.

Statewide, one in 11 people were living with food insecurity, the data show.

After she develops a strong understanding of hunger’s causes, Harpster said she plans to seek input from community stakeholders and other Community Kitchen staff to determine what strategies to implement.

Additionally, she will bring people who are dealing with food insecurity to the table.

“One thing that has become really clear to me is how it’s important for people who experience the problem to be able to advocate for themselves,” Harpster said. “... They really know more than we do about what’s really going on, as a family or a single person that is trying to meet all the needs and where they run into difficulties.”

Throughout the whole process, Harpster added, she wants the community to be engaged. Those interested can contact her directly at tckadvocacy@gmail.com or call The Community Kitchen at 352-3200.

“I am very open to hearing people’s thoughts and insights, and getting collaboration if people want to be involved, because it’s not about one person or organization doing the work,” she said. “... It’s an open collaboration for everybody.”

Olivia Belanger can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1439, or obelanger@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @OBelangerKS.