Use of the oft-used phrase “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” rarely involves an actual horse. More frequently, it’s invoked to denote that even when help is available, it can be difficult to get those in need to accept.

Such is the case with hunger. There are myriad local, state and federal programs to boost access to nutritious meals available in this area. Yet according to those who run such efforts, many in the Monadnock Region simply don’t take advantage of them.

There’s no denying the need. A report conducted last spring by the Southwest Region Planning Commission, the Monadnock Region Food Access Analysis, noted 9.5 percent of residents and 12.7 percent of children in Cheshire County were food insecure, according to 2019 data from Feeding America. Both rates are higher than the state’s average, which isn’t surprising, as the county has a higher poverty rate than the state as a whole. The truth is, in a region where housing costs are above the norm and wages are below, more than that number may be food insecure, despite the many agencies and efforts available to them. And with federal COVID aid winding down, there may soon be a bump in demand.

That’s not to say people here aren’t using those programs. The Community Kitchen in Keene and other area pantries and meals programs have reported increasing demand, particularly throughout the pandemic.

At the same time, they note, lots of people who qualify for assistance — from those programs for which eligibility is a requirement — don’t take advantage of their options. There are theories why — pride, not knowing about them, fear of getting involved with “the system,” etc. In the case of state or federal food programs that rely on meeting eligibility criteria, such as food stamps, WIC and school lunch discounts, up to 40 percent might not meet all the eligibility guidelines, even if their income qualifies.

Whatever the reason, a new alliance of local groups is aiming to close the gap and connect more individuals and families in need with programs that can help. The Monadnock Children’s Food Access Alliance was created by similar local coalitions, Healthy Monadnock and the Monadnock Farm and Community Coalition, to develop a food access plan for area children. So far it has more than 30 community partners, including farm service organizations, food pantry managers, public health representatives, food policy experts and educators.

“… our work group was originally ... about educating on the importance of eating local food and the benefits to the environment, but it morphed into food access,” Roe-Ann Tasoulas, director of the Monadnock Farm and Community Coalition, told The Sentinel’s Olivia Belanger. “Before the pandemic, we found out that ... these nutrition programs were being underused and we wanted to find out why.”

Tasoulas noted: “Clearly, there is a cultural component to this." She said she frequently heard people say they felt they could make it on their own or that others are "more" in need.

Except, often, that’s an unduly optimistic stance, and one that can prove counterproductive to the entire community. Malnourished children don’t learn as well; those lacking proper nutrition are more susceptible to dental issues and other illnesses, driving up costs for care. And for those really in need, accepting food assistance may free up funds that can be used to prevent homelessness or other situations that drain community resources.

Solutions are being raised. The Community Kitchen has a plan to create a mobile food pantry to visit people where they are (lack of transportation is one of the key hindrances to people taking advantage of the available aid). And the alliance is trying to determine the five most effective projects to help with food access, with plans to fund them over the next two years.

It’s early to determine how much those efforts will help, but the fact that more organizations — from food producers to advocates to government agencies — are working in concert on the problem bodes well.

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