‘Breaks my heart’: NH mom looks forward to summer food assistance program for her son

NH's Summer EBT program could help thousands of families like Owen Sefton (left) and Danielle Plouffe (right). (Courtesy of Danielle Plouffe)

NH's Summer EBT program could help thousands of families like Owen Sefton (left) and Danielle Plouffe (right). (Courtesy of Danielle Plouffe)

NH's Summer EBT program could help thousands of families like Owen Sefton (left) and Danielle Plouffe (right). (Courtesy of Danielle Plouffe)

By Mrinali Dhembla

May 30, 2024

Danielle Plouffe has lost 40 to 45 pounds since November due to stress and lack of eating. She and her 5-year-old son Owen Sefton have been living in between shelters and hotels since March.

“I had to leave my condo due to it being $2,300 a month because I just could not afford it,” said Plouffe, of Exeter, adding that due to financial constraints she has also had to seek food assistance.

Hunger on the rise in NH

Like 1 in 10 families in New Hampshire, Plouffe and Sefton are experiencing food insecurity. As of April, 41% adults and 54% children in New Hampshire lived in households that reported having insufficient food.

Plouffe said that she has been relying on local churches and food banks for assistance. But it’s just not enough to keep herself and her son going.

“It’s been hard. Just passed in proofs for food stamps so fingers crossed we get on those soon,” she said, adding that it’s been difficult finding resources to apply for food assistance programs.

It’s taken a lot of hours, phone calls, and online research to find the right resources for her and Sefton, she said.

She said she’s prioritized Sefton’s nutritional intake, but constant anxiety and change of surroundings have had a severe impact on his mental health.

“It’s been really rough the last few months, and my son had to watch it all, and he is going through hell. It just breaks my heart,” Plouffe said. “I’ve never felt I have to put my pride aside like going to churches and begging for help. It’s embarrassing. It’s hard.”

She said Sefton used to eat meals in his school, and he “loved it,” but housing instability and behavioral incidents in school made Sefton pause going to his school in Stratham late last year.

Summer food assistance much-needed in NH

Like Sefton, millions of kids from low-income families (making 130% of the federal poverty level or $36,075) in the country rely on the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program to get access to nutritionally balanced meals as part of their regular school days.

But things can get difficult during the summer months, when school is not in session.

To combat this problem, the state Legislature recently passed Senate Bill 499, also known as the “anti-hunger bill,” which would bring almost $4.5 million in funding per year to the state to feed school going kids during the summer under a federal program called Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer, or Summer EBT. The program allows low-income families to avail $40 per month per child in grocery-buying benefits over the summer when school is not in session.

The bill—that faced stiff Republican opposition in a House finance committee—was introduced by Democratic State Sen. Becky Whitley, who represents the Concord region, and would allow the distribution of incoming federal dollars to NH families with school-aged kids that make up 185% of the federal poverty level, or $57,720 for a household of four.

“I think it would be amazing,” Plouffe said of Summer EBT, adding that she would have to pay $150-200 out-of-pocket for groceries every week when she wasn’t on food assistance through the state and food banks.

SB 499, if signed into law by Gov. Sununu would help almost 37,000 eligible students, including Sefton, in New Hampshire.

Summer food benefits could help thousands in NH

Studies show that participation in school meal programs throughout the country has been on the rise since the pandemic, with almost 15.5 million children receiving a school breakfast, and 29.9 million children getting school lunches in the 2021-22 academic year.

The demand for food assistance has dramatically risen since pandemic-era benefits stopped, and inflation took off, said Anne Hayes, the executive director of Gather, a food bank located on the seacoast that Plouffe has been seeking assistance from.

“Basically, over the past just two years, we’ve seen nearly a 50% increase in the number of people that we’re serving,” said Hayes, adding that the pantry used to serve 6,200 people a month, but hit a record-high demand in March and April when it served nearly 10,800 people.

She added that the Gather runs a program called Meals for Kids, to aid people whose children are eligible for free and reduced price lunches at schools but don’t have access to them during summer vacation.

Hayes said on an average 500 kids avail food assistance through her organization in a week during the summer, and said the federal dollars would help alleviate pressure that her organization faces to keep New Hampshire kids and residents fed adequately.

“That extra $40 a month, they can spend it on their kids’ meals and stuff,” she said. “That’s less pressure on some of us who are under just a tremendous amount of pressure with this increase in demand.”

For Plouffe, who is facing constraints in different facets of her life, any sort of assistance means a lot, she said.

“I mean, everything has been taken from us,” she said. “I am at the lowest we can get at the moment.”

Author

  • Mrinali Dhembla

    Based in Manchester, Mrinali Dhembla is Granite Post's multimedia reporter. She's previously worked as deputy editor at The Keene Sentinel, and has experience writing for many national and international publications. When not doing journalism, she likes to cook food (and eat it).

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