You’ve Got a Friend
By David Tirrell-Wysocki
Fiddlehead Contributing Writer
New Hampshire residents who worry about where their next meal will come from have some faithful Friends – with a capital F.
The Friends RSVP (Retired Senior and Volunteer Program), based in Concord, has attracted a legion of volunteers to help make sure residents have nutritious food for themselves and their children.
University of New Hampshire Carsey Institute researchers found in 2014 that “food insecurity” affects people in cities and rural areas all around the state. More than 13 percent of New Hampshire households reported they worry they will run out of food, are not able to afford balanced meals, skip or scrimp on meals and sometimes, don’t eat for a whole day.
As part of their Friends RSVP’s Food Insecurity Project, volunteers help build and cultivate community gardens and donate the bounty, deliver food, staff soup kitchens and food pantries and provide backpacks of food each week to children.
They also are part of a statewide gleaning project, stepping in when New Hampshire farmers can’t pick all of their fruits or vegetables.
In the past, blueberries left behind when pick-your-own families stopped showing up, or apples that were too high to reach went to waste or died on the vine. Now, farmers or private homeowners with extra produce can call for help. Volunteers rescue the food and donate it to the New Hampshire Food Bank and other organizations that provide food to those in need.
In New Hampshire, NH Gleans is a network of organizations whose volunteers harvested more than 200,000 pounds of fresh food in 2018. That’s 100 TONS!
The program is supported by the New Hampshire Farm to School Program and by an anonymous donor through the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.
NH Gleans divides the state into seven regions, where various organizations coordinate gleaning programs that continue year-round. Its calendar called for volunteers to help pick lettuce through this winter.
The Friends RSVP volunteers work with the Merrimack County Conservation District. Last year, they helped pick more than 49,000 pounds of produce and brought it to thousands of individuals served by 46 charitable locations, including nearly every food panty in the county.
“We go to every corner of the county – Head Start programs, after-school programs, soup kitchens, low-income senior centers, homeless shelters,” said District Manager Stacy Luke, at the Merrimack County Conservation District. “We even bring it to residential homes for children.”
Gleaning saves produce, provides farmers a tax benefit to help sustain their businesses, provides fresh food to help sustain New Hampshire residents and, in the Friends RSVP program, helps sustain retirees by engaging them in good deeds.
“We have really passionate, able-bodied seniors who want to go out and help feed people,” said Lily Wellington, Friends RSVP’s Director of Senior Programming. “They are taking something and turning it into a resource instead of having it just go to waste.”
The Friends RSVP’s gleaning effort was honored last year for the Best Small Nonprofit video about sustainability from the New Hampshire Businesses for Social Responsibility. The Conservation District recognized the program with its Cooperator of the Year Award for 2017-2018.
“The volunteers are the stars,” Luke said, noting that they enable the program to reach small communities in far reaches of the county, not just larger, centrally located food pantries.
According to Wellington, average RSVP volunteers are in their mid-70s to early 80s, standing by to answer the call to help build a community garden or pick stranded apples.
“These small steps really add up to a huge difference,” Wellington said, sometimes one apple at a time. “We are able to bring them to our backpack program and put fresh apples in every kid’s bag. That’s a luxury some kids don’t have – fresh fruit.”
The volunteers include retired AT&T communications technician Bernie Fournier, 69, of Pembroke, who helps build community gardens, delivers produce and heads into fields and orchards to lend a hand.
“I’ve picked apples. I’ve done corn. I’ve done blueberries, strawberries and squash,” he said. “A couple of years ago, I went to Carter Hill Orchard [in Concord]. They had picked peaches and the order was canceled, so I took the peaches to a number of places.”
Fournier said everyone wins.
“People get fresh vegetables, and I get the satisfaction of helping people who really need food,” he said. “It costs me just my time and maybe a little gas. It gives you more of a purpose of getting up in the morning.”
Farmers or families with produce to spare can register at