The New Hampshire Food Bank has a new Executive Director. Eileen Groll Liponis of Brentwood spent more than two decades in the business and nonprofit world, including nine years at the helm of the New Hampshire Public Charter School Association. She spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello about the need for food assistance among Granite State residents.
For listeners who aren’t familiar with the Food Bank and how it operates, explain how the Food Bank gets donated food to people who need it.
With every dollar, we’re able to provide two meals. That’s through working with our partners like Feeding America. We’re able to buy food from Feeding America at a discounted rate because they buy in bulk from national grocers and wholesalers. So we are able to leverage, through their strength, the buying power of every dollar that is given to us.
And when people need this food, do they go directly to the Food Bank’s headquarters, or is it distributed in some way to towns and cities across the state?
This is distributed through 400 agencies that we partner with. We’re the only Food Bank in the state of New Hampshire, and we do 12 million pounds annually, or about 1 million pounds per month.
Our trucks are constantly running out to these agencies and delivering.
You’ve been on the job for less than two weeks. In the announcement that you’ve taken the job, the press release said you’re interested in expanding some of the programs that the Food Bank already has. Which ones?
In the “Recipe for Success” area, I think there’s a lot of opportunity to really improve the nutrition of what we deliver to the clients, and that’s one of the overall trends within the Food Bank community—trying to look at a more holistic approach to how we approach our clients and communities.
The nutritional value is what I’m really taking a priority look at, delivering more produce and protein.
Does that present a logistical problem in that the most nutritious foods are the most likely to spoil?
That’s right, and that’s why I reverse-engineered my look at it. I first took a real top-down, macro look at what the trends in the industry are and how we deliver that to the client. I’m really starting from the tummies of the food insecure and how we get that higher nutritional content to them.
What we’re going to look at first is the capacity of our agencies is the infrastructure, so they can receive perishable items like fresh produce and then store frozen produce and vegetables.
When you say “infrastructure,” what do you mean? Is there some critical physical piece of equipment that the Food Bank needs to deliver food to those who need it?
For our agencies, to be able to hold the food that we want them to deliver, we need infrastructure builds like refrigerators, freezers, commercial scales. We’re talking about commercial-sized refrigerators and freezers and the infrastructure behind that may include the electricity that is brought to that food pantry that needs to be increased due to the commercial grade of the refrigerator or freezer.
Let’s take a broader look at food insecurity in New Hampshire. How does the problem compare to what it was five years ago or 10 years ago?
We’re making strides. In New Hampshire especially we get the most value for every dollar contributed. I think New Hampshire has a real lean, mean feeding machine in our Food Bank. Almost 97 cents of every dollar goes directly to our programming.
The food insecure—we have one in nine adults currently food insecure. One in five children are food insecure and one in four of those reside in the greater Manchester area. Those numbers are down but they’re still there. They still exist.
A greater problem is also—folks look at unemployment and they say [to the Food bank], “Oh, unemployment is down. Your job must be getting easier.” But there is the issue of the working poor with lower wages, high housing costs, high utility costs. It’s very difficult these days for folks. So even if they are working, they have a hard time making the dollar stretch. And because they’re working, they may be off certain additional benefits, but they still need our assistance.
What about food deserts—neighborhoods where folks don’t have easy access to a place that sells healthy, nutritious food. Is that a huge problem here in New Hampshire?
We have some of that in the North Country. One of the ways that we’re looking to address it is with mobile food pantries. We have deliveries that are scheduled to go up to the Colebrook area and in other regions where we do find that.
Also in the summer we have a problem with rural areas and because children are out of school and they’re out of that school structure where they may have qualified free and reduced lunch and then in the summer that’s not there, so we do have programs that are addressing that as well.