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Monadnock Region is Hungry for Answers

Submitted by HM2020 Partner in Action, Monadnock Farm and Community CoalitionAPATT

Did you know that fifty million people in the U.S., one in four children, don’t know where their next meal will come from? That statistic has more than doubled since the 1980s.

In Monadnock Region, where about 107,000 people live, 10,587 of them aren’t sure where they’ll get their next meal. Of those 10,587 people, about 3,000 are children, according to statistics compiled by the Monadnock Farm and Community Coalition, a regional organization whose mission is to support a sustainable local food system. The coalition partnered with eight local and state organizations to host this special screening of “A Place at the Table” at The Colonial Theatre in Keene.

The 2012 documentary played before a packed theater and served as the backdrop to a post-film panel discussion, moderated by N.H. Sen. Molly M. Kelly, D-Keene. Panelists included Donna Reynolds of the Conval Regional School District’s food service, Kin Schilling of The Cornucopia Project, Phoebe Bray of The Community Kitchen of Keene and Olivia Zink of N.H. Citizen’s Alliance for Action.The film, which features actor Jeff Bridges and “Top Chef” star Tom Colicchio, looks at the causes and effects of hunger in communities throughout the U.S., the factors that contribute to food insecurity, and the role U.S. food policies have played in shaping the picture of hunger and obesity in America today.

After viewing the film for a second time Sunday, Kelly said she felt a mix of emotions; she was sad because a child went hungry for too long, angry because in this rich country people are going without food essentials, and disappointed at elected officials for not doing enough to find solutions. By working together, she said, people can help bring about change in their communities and find ways to end the national hunger crisis.

But many of the panelists said the minimum wage in New Hampshire is not a livable wage, and until that increases, hunger will remain a major concern locally. The minimum wage in the state is $7.25 an hour.

Zink said the middle class is “the engine of our economy,” and if people can’t afford food then there are a lot of other things they aren’t buying. When cuts are made to crucial social services programs, like food stamps, she said, people need to show their outrage and demand more of their political representatives. The staff of N.H. Citizen’s Alliance works to engage grassroots activists in lobbying the Legislature to seek public policy changes, she said.

At The Community Kitchen, volunteers are trying to direct people toward better food choices and teach them how to cook with locally grown produce, said Bray, the executive director. The kitchen provides hot meals and take-home food boxes to low- and moderate-income people. Through The Community Kitchen Gleaning Project, volunteers go to local orchards and farms in Cheshire County and harvest fresh fruits and vegetables that producers would otherwise not sell. Rather than these products going to waste, they are now being distributed to area food pantries and used in local school lunch programs, Bray said.

In the Conval Regional School District, all eight of its schools are involved with the Hancock-based Cornucopia Project, a nonprofit organization that seeks to provide children with hands-on experience in growing organic gardens.
Schilling, who is the project’s founder and executive director, said she’d love to bring the program to area preschools, too. The younger that children are taught about healthy food choices, the better, she said.

Hunger in the Monadnock Region is more prevalent than people think. Other panelists agreed, saying sometimes people are in denial that hunger is a problem in their own neighborhoods. According to the Monadnock Farm and Community Coalition, 7,800 children attending Monadnock Region schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Reynolds said she sees children in Conval’s schools who are hungry and not receiving well-balanced meals at home. “It was a real eye-opener for my staff.”

Reynolds recalled one of her favorite moments in the documentary, when a teacher introduced her class to a honeydew melon for the first time. When the teacher asked the students if they would choose the melon over a bag of chips, the majority said they’d take the fruit. Providing needy families with access to affordable fresh produce on a daily basis is an ongoing struggle and one that panelists said needs to be addressed. Otherwise, children will continue to struggle in the classroom because they don’t have the nutrition they need to reach their full potential. Future generations deserve better and we hope that future children will never know the hunger pains some battle nearly every day.