May 31 was the first time Ellen Lockharg needed help getting enough to eat.
At 83, Lockharg had always been self-sufficient. But when her husband became ill a few months ago, the medical bills began piling up. It became more difficult for Lockharg, who is on a fixed income, to make ends meet at a time when food prices have been skyrocketing due to inflation.
She said it was a difficult decision to come to Gather, a food pantry in Portsmouth, which provides fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, and dairy products to its members who can come once a month to pick up free food.
“Everyone wants to be self-supporting,” said Lockharg, who lives in New Durham. She had worked a retail job and managed a hotel in Connecticut before retiring. “I’ve never had to ask for help. I’ve been very willing to give it and I have at times, but the tables have turned.”
Lockharg isn’t alone. Many New Hampshire families are struggling to either get enough to eat or to get the kinds of food they want, according to the most recent numbers available from the Household Pulse Survey. The latest survey indicated that about 460,000 residents had insufficient food after a pandemic era assistance program ended in March.
Laura Milliken, the executive director of NH Hunger Solutions, said when the program ended, there was a spike in food insecurity. It includes people struggling to afford the kinds of food they need like protein or fresh vegetables.
During the pandemic, people receiving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, were able to get the maximum amount based on their household size through an emergency allotment. When that benefit ended in March, that meant $106 less per month for an individual and $206 less for the average household, according to Milliken.
The money gets loaded onto an EBT card and can be spent on groceries. Most people on SNAP receive about $6 per day per person, and many say it’s not enough to last them through the month.
More people are now turning to the charitable food system, including pantries like Gather, to make up the difference.
“We ran out of food stamps two weeks ago, and because of [Gather], I can feed my 3-year-old and I can feed my mom,” said Wendy, who picked up food from a mobile pantry that Gather runs out of a bus retrofitted with refrigerators. She asked to be referenced only by her first name because of concerns about domestic violence. “If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have food,” she said. “We would be in trouble.”
Wendy said she also shops for her neighbor who has dementia.
The bus driver, Jill Jones, keeps track of how many people come to pick up food and how many families they’re shopping for. She said she’s seen a lot of new faces recently.
Those who work in pantries say they’re struggling to meet the increased demand.
“Folks in the charitable food system are saying that they’re completely overwhelmed,” Milliken said. “People that they’ve never seen before are coming out and people are really relying on their pantries and food banks on a regular basis. It’s supposed to be an emergency program. It’s just been really, really concerning.”
The NH Food Bank works with 414 pantries throughout the state to provide food to those in need. A survey found that between March and May of this year, 37 percent of respondents had come to the pantry for the first time.
“With the emergency allotment [of SNAP] ending and then prices going up, it’s kind of a double whammy,” said Nancy Mellitt, the director of development at the NH Food Bank.
Anne Hayes, the executive director of Gather, said the nonprofit has seen a 30 percent increase in how many people are seeking food this year compared to last year.
“It’s a massive increase in demand,” she said.
She also attributes it to a combination of the end of pandemic-era benefits and inflation — the increasing cost of not only groceries, but also rent and utilities. “The hunger cliffs that people have been talking about, we’re definitely seeing that,” she said.
Gather’s pantry market usually sees around 40 to 50 people per day, Hayes said. After the pandemic-era assistance ended, she said it jumped to 70 to 80 people per day. At the same time, donations have gone down by about 20 percent.
“It’s kind of a perfect storm, right?” Hayes said. “We see people from all walks of life suddenly starting to get our services, and we’re getting less provided to us to distribute.”
That’s forced the nonprofit to purchase more food to meet the increased demand, which is expensive right now.
Virginia “Ginny” Patnaude of Portsmouth said she started coming to Gather’s pantry for food after escaping from domestic violence in 2017.
“All of a sudden people were coming to shut off the gas, the house was going into foreclosure, and all I had was a Social Security check,” she said. Patnaude is a retired state employee who worked for the Department of Health and Human Services. She said coming to the pantry isn’t just about getting food, but it’s also a source of meaningful social interaction.
She’s met other survivors of domestic violence there who understand her experience.
“It sparks all kinds of conversations and enhances the quality of your life,” she said.
To apply for SNAP, contact your local Community Action Agency. For more information on how to get food from Gather, go to gathernh.org. You have to register to shop there but do not need to prove need.
Check out this map from the NH Food Bank to find a food pantry near you.