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N.H. food bank to launch food processing plant

Nonprofit moving beyond its mission to launch a business to supply other pantries and create needed jobs

New Hampshire Food Bank executive director Mel Gosselin stands where a new food processing plant will soon be built.
New Hampshire Food Bank executive director Mel Gosselin stands where a new food processing plant will soon be built.(Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe)

MANCHESTER, N.H. — For 30 years, the New Hampshire Food Bank has helped the poor, each day witnessing the struggles of families trying to make ends meet.

As people streamed into the local food pantries the food bank supplies, leaders of the nonprofit realized that many of the clients needed more than food.

They needed jobs. And they needed training.

Addressing these needs inspired the food bank to launch its own food-processing business to supply packaged and canned goods to 400 food pantries around the state, employ three people on a rotating basis, and provide job training and experience to help them advance to other jobs and careers.

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When production begins in about six months, the nonprofit will become the first food bank in the Northeast — and only the second in the country — to operate its own food-processing plant.

“We have to change the business model, figure out how to get ourselves out of the box, find other opportunities,” said Mel Gosselin, who recently marked her 12th year as the food bank’s executive director.

The concept for the food-processing plant was developed with a $5,000 grant from the Entrepreneurs Foundation of New Hampshire, an initiative of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation that encourages philanthropy in the state’s business community.

The next step is building a clean room that conforms to the Department of Agriculture’s hygiene standards, followed by installation of equipment that will allow dry products — macaroni dinners, rice and beans, cereals, and more — to be packed by hand.

The food bank plans to add more equipment to automate the process further as the business grows over the next 12 to 18 months.

The last phase will be “wet” production, the processing of perishables such as fresh produce and meats, which will be frozen or freeze-dried.

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Salvation Army captain Sally Warren packed her minivan with food for distribution.
Salvation Army captain Sally Warren packed her minivan with food for distribution. (Cheryl Senter for the Boston Globe)

The processing plant will serve two markets, said Bruce N. Wilson, director of operations.

It will use ingredients such as rice, cereals, and pasta donated in bulk by national food manufacturers to make packaged meals and other products that will be distributed to food pantries around the state.

The food bank also plans to purchase some bulk foods, at cost or lower, that it will process for the retail market as a way to diversify its product lines and generate revenue to support the nonprofit’s charitable mission, Gosselin said.

Ocean State Job Lot, a Rhode Island discount chain that operates 117 stores in the Northeast, has agreed to carry products manufactured by the food bank’s processing plant, which will be sold under the label “Food Factory.”

“You have to function as a business,” Gosselin said. “You have to have a long-term strategy, to become self-sufficient. In a food desert, you have to create your own environment and market.”

Gosselin has consulted with Jaynee Day, chief executive of Second Harvest Food Bank in Nashville, the first food bank in the country to start a food-processing plant.

Second Harvest, the largest food bank in Tennessee, has operated a food-processing plant for more than a decade, Day said, last year processing more than 500,000 pounds of food, which it sells under the “Project Preserve” label.

Several factors have contributed to Second Harvest’s success, Day said, including its location near the plants of major food producers such as General Mills Inc. of Minneapolis and Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale, Ark., and distribution centers for a major produce supplier and Walmart Stores Inc., of Bentonville, Ark.

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These companies donate slightly damaged but edible products.

“They have excess they don’t want to throw out,” Day said. “They’re very generous.”

The New Hampshire Food Bank won’t start with these kind of advantages.

New Hampshire has few farms and food manufacturers to provide the raw materials for food processing. So the agency will make do with what it does have: opportunities to purchase bulk raw ingredients, at cost or less, through Ocean State Job Lot and potentially other partners, plus a production system that will use donations of produce and meat from supermarkets.

“We have to be scrappers,” said Gosselin, a former Walmart manager who helped open the chain’s first New Hampshire store in 1990.

The food bank was launched in 1984 by Catholic Charities New Hampshire. It opened in a small storefront in downtown Manchester, operating like a flea market with open boxes on the floor, a first-come, first-served policy, and little tracking of what came in and what went out.

Today, the food bank operates out of a 60,000-square-foot warehouse in a Manchester industrial park, growth that underscores the persistence of hunger, the increased demand for the nonprofit’s services, and an uneven economic recovery that has left many people behind.

Last year, the food bank distributed more than 11 million pounds of food, surging 29 percent from 2013.

The food bank moved to its current location in 2009, during the worst of the most recent recession. It planned to convert the warehouse into a distribution center, storage facility, cooking school, and 2,800-square-foot food processing plant.

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“What we’re finally doing is what we talked about when were starting out here, said Wilson, the director of operations. “It’s time to jump.”

 Workers sorted boxes and processed packages of frozen meat.
Workers sorted boxes and processed packages of frozen meat. (Cheryl Senter for the Boston Globe)

Hattie Bernstein can be reached
at hbernstein04@icloud.com.