Shelf life

The Seacoast Family Food Pantry celebrates 200 years

Each month, the Seacoast Family Food Pantry (SFFP) provides food to 300 families in the greater Portsmouth area. Shelly (who asked that her last name not be used), her husband, and their three kids are one of those families. They became clients at the pantry in the summer of 2014 when the family signed up for SFFP’s Summer Meals 4 Kids program.

“My husband had suffered some layoffs. He was working, but was working at a reduced income. During the school year, we qualified for free school lunches. Then in the summer, well, these kids like to eat,” Shelly says, laughing. “But I never realized until we were in this financial situation how helpful it was they were getting free school lunch.”

The SFFP made a difficult situation a little easier. Shelly didn’t find out about the program until the beginning of July, and even a few weeks of paying for extra meals for the kids had already strained the family’s tight budget.

“It’s stressful to have that extra expense. You cut costs here and there, but once we started going (to SFFP), that was such a relief,” she says.

It’s a situation that has become common for many families in the Seacoast. Margie Parker, the pantry’s operations manager, says that when she began working there nine years ago, the pantry had about 40 families as clients. Now, 300 clients — from single-person households to families with four or more children — arrive each month and receive about a week’s worth of food. It’s not much, according to Parker, but every bit helps.

“We’re only supplemental,” she says.

This is what the pantry has done since 1816 — provide food for local families who are experiencing hard times. As the Seacoast Family Food Pantry marks its 200th anniversary this year, the nonprofit is looking ahead to its future. As its client base continues to grow, the pantry is searching for a new home and new ways to maintain a safety net that’s stretched increasingly thin each year.

“It’s an inspiring idea, that this community was looking out for its neighbors back in its infancy,” says Elisa Bolton, president of the pantry’s board of directors. “And that it still has the passion to continue to do that.”

Difficult choices

The pantry is located at 7 Junkins Ave. in Portsmouth, next to city hall and in the same building as a number of other social-service agencies. On a given day, between 25 and 30 families come in for a 15-minute “shopping” appointment. Someone working for the pantry guides the clients through its rooms, refrigerators, and storage closets and helps them pick out a set amount of food. There are the usual nonperishable food pantry staples on the shelves — canned soups and beans and so on — but there are also fresh vegetables, eggs, milk, and meat from grocery stores like Hannaford and Trader Joe’s.

“We shop with them and we get to know them,” Parker says. “When they first come in, it’s always hard.”

It’s not easy for families to ask for help, according to Deb Anthony, the pantry’s executive director. Beyond providing food, much of the day-to-day work at the pantry involves building relationships with clients and earning their trust.

“I think it is the stigma that’s attached to coming for services,” Anthony says. “When you receive social services, there are generally many rules and regulations attached. People learn to be guarded.”

The clients run the gamut from working-class families with parents working two or three jobs to make ends meet to seniors who live on their own. Each family gets a monthly allotment of about 35 pounds of food per person. It sounds like a lot, but according to Parker, it comes out to about a week’s worth of food.

“That’s the nature of living on the edge — it’s really hard,” Anthony says. “(Our community) hides it well, but it’s out there.”

Room to grow

The pantry serves families from the greater Portsmouth area, including Newington, Greenland, Stratham, Hampton, Seabrook, and Kittery, Maine. Like most food pantries, SFFP does a lot with what it has. But what it has right now, Anthony says, is a limited amount of space. Last year, the Portsmouth Sign Company donated a 2,000-square-foot space for the pantry to use to supplement its 1,500-square-foot main location. The pantry used the off-site space to store and sort food for its holiday food drive.

“It truly gave us the realization that we needed a warehouse,” Anthony says.

The pantry got its start a few blocks away in Strawbery Banke in 1816. Then known as the Ladies Humane Society, its primary mission was providing assistance to the families of local fishermen. At its core, the mission is still the same, but the ways to address it have grown more complex.

“That’s the nature of living on the edge — it’s really hard. … (Our community) hides it well, but it’s out there.” — Seacoast Family Food Pantry executive director Deb Anthony

Take the Summer Meals 4 Kids program. Anthony says that, once the school year ends, the program brings food to about 200 children per week. Many of those families live in communities outside of Portsmouth, such as Seabrook, where 276 of the district’s 598 students (about 46 percent) qualify for free or reduced school lunch — which means they can participate in Summer Meals 4 Kids. The program emphasizes healthy eating habits. Each summer, participants receive a kid-friendly cookbook. The packages of food delivered each week contain fresh fruits and vegetables, along with the ingredients for a featured meal that kids can make at home.

“The more you can engage with the children … the more likely they’ll eat the food they’re getting,” Anthony says.

Last summer, SFFP partnered with Wake Robin Farm in Stratham to offer CSA shares to 20 families. Shelly’s family was one of the participants, and having farm-fresh produce each week was “unbelievable,” she says.

“These were foods that I’d never even tried before, so to be able to introduce these things to my kids, it was amazing,” she says. “The kids would be very excited when I came home to see what we had.”

All these programs mean the pantry needs more room to grow. The satellite space is working for now, but the pantry’s lease is up in 2018. Anthony says a larger space, ideally between 4,000 and 6,000 square feet, would be enough to store food and set up a licensed kitchen for re-purposing food.

Lasting change

The pantry’s 200th anniversary has given the organization an opportunity to look ahead, according to Anthony. Giving hungry people food sounds simple, but to do so successfully requires a web of community partnerships and constant innovation. Fundraisers help — like the annual Taste of the Nation event, or last summer’s “Fill The Hall” food drive at The Music Hall — as do collaborations with other organizations, like the Portsmouth Housing Authority. Anthony worked with the housing authority to bring a van full of residents to the Portsmouth farmers market last year, an activity she says was a success.

“What pushes us to innovate is that we’ve been giving people food for 200 years, and we still have hungry people,” Anthony says. “We want to do food and do it really well. The root causes (of hunger) start in poverty, and that’s a multi-pronged, multi-faceted issue.”