Rural areas, not surprisingly, must find ways to address challenges they face in ways different than more metropolitan or urban locations. In this area, that is seen clearly in devising creative solutions to tackle the vexing problem of food insecurity.
The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture considers food insecure households to be those having uncertain or limited access to enough food. But food insecurity has wider-reaching ramifications than only inadequate access to sufficient food, as it can contribute to myriad other concerns, including health issues arising from decreased nutrient intake, poor oral health, asthma, increased hospitalization risk and behavioral and developmental problems.
The most recent data from the national food access organization Feeding America showed that in 2019, 9.5 percent of all Cheshire County residents and 12.7 percent of its children were food insecure, both higher than the state-wide averages. As the county’s poverty rate is higher than the state’s and poverty is the leading cause of food insecurity, this comes as no surprise.
But taking on poverty to address the region’s food insecurity issue is not the only challenge. A 2021 food access analysis conducted by the Southwest Region Planning Commission pointed to lack of transportation in this rural area — and specifically lack of a car — as the number two risk factor for food insecurity.
This, the 2021 analysis reported, helps explain why many federal and other assistance programs available to alleviate food insecurity in the region are significantly under-utilized. And it also indicates why the analysis found households in sparsely populated areas spend proportionally more of their household income on food.
Quite simply, not having ready means to get there from here means reduced access to food pantries and to the grocery stores where available dollars go further.
Heartening, then, was the recent news that plans of The Community Kitchen in Keene to introduce a mobile food pantry are coming to fruition, initially with six “pop-up” pantries that will bring “farmers-market” style tents and tables to various communities in 2022, followed by a roll-out of a fully mobile food pantry next spring.
The pop-up pantries will serve anyone living in the Monadnock Region who qualifies for food assistance, The Community Kitchen’s hunger solutions advocacy coordinator Sarah Harpster reported. There, the same three-days’ worth of fresh food — nine meals — that can be picked up at The Community Kitchen’s downtown facility will be available. But by bringing availability to area towns, the transportation barrier to access should be lessened. The first pop-up pantry is scheduled for June 11 in Winchester.
The cost of addressing food insecurity closer to where families and children live is not insignificant. A Community Kitchen press release estimates the cost to roll out next year’s mobile pantry to be $400,000 for vehicles, food, staffing and equipment. Grants for about a quarter of this have been secured, including a federal pandemic aid grant awarded by Cheshire County, and additional fundraising through donations and grants will be necessary. The plan to begin with the pop-up pantries is thus a good one, both to work out any logistical kinks and to demonstrate their effectiveness.
Despite the promise of the plans to launch the pop-up and then fully mobile pantries, much remains to be done to meaningfully reduce food insecurity in the area. The Community Kitchen deserves kudos for its lead role in the launch, but the project is only one of a number of initiatives under the umbrella auspices of the Monadnock Children’s Food Access Alliance that grew out of a working group of the Monadnock Farm and Community Coalition.
That brings together over 30 community partners, including farm service organizations, food pantries, public health representatives, food policy experts and educators, in a collaborative, comprehensive approach to tackling the many obstacles to addressing food insecurity in southwestern New Hampshire.
Sadly, with the recent surge in consumer prices for food, gas and other essentials, the approaching end to govern pandemic relief funding and the sharp rise in housing costs, food insecurity concerns look to become more acute.
It’s encouraging, though, the groundwork of establishing a regional coordinated network to tackle the problem has been laid and that a significant initiative to help solve the transportation barrier through mobile services is underway.