For the first time since 1974, the Capital Region Food Program’s Holiday Project will take a new form this winter. Instead of packaged boxes of food for the holidays, recipients will get a voucher to purchase their own food at Market Basket.
The change to a monetary voucher allows people to choose the food they want around the holiday season. This could mean a recipient shops for a specific dinner or general groceries. Personal shopping also accommodates different dietary restrictions or cultural traditions, said Maria Manus Painchaud, the holiday project lead for the program.
“You get to decide if it’s for your holiday meal, or if it’s for between Christmas and New Year’s or if it’s for the first year. It doesn’t matter,” she said. “You decide what’s in the best interests of yourself or your family.”
At its core, the mission remains the same – to alleviate hunger in the Concord area. This has been the focus of the Capital Region Food Program and will continue to be, said Painchaud.
But when the pandemic halted the ability to assemble holiday boxes in person it also gave the program a chance to reconsider its model.
Vouchers will be distributed to recipients on Dec. 10. They will be valid through Jan. 31, and can be used to make a one-time purchase at participating Market Basket locations.
Since its inception, the holiday program has provided pre-assembled boxes that included a holiday meal and items to supplement meals for two to three weeks.
This production was made possible in recent years thanks to a partnership with New Hampshire National Guard. Boxes would line their distribution center as volunteers would fill and package food items for distribution.
But Painchaud heard that unwanted items were sometimes discarded by recipients, contributing to food waste in the area which is antithetical to the program’s mission of feeding individuals.
The board of directors for the program was also concerned about the sustainability of their model. Their core group of volunteers was aging, and the logistics of assembling and distributing boxes required as many hands as possible.
“The model in which we used to use was not sustainable. There’s just no way we could do it,” Painchaud said.
This is when conversations about vouchers began. The change would allow for greater flexibility toward individual needs, lessen the dependency on volunteers and perhaps draw past participants who have dropped off in recent years back.
Enrollment in the program steadily dropped over the last decade. In 2012, there were 2,519 families that received boxes. Before the pandemic in 2019, this number was 1,776.
But Painchaud admits, she was hesitant at first.
She feared that vouchers would be easily duplicated. To remedy this, they’re printed on paper that will print “voided” if copied.
She worried that she would not be able to report back to donors on the success and metrics of the program. However, Market Basket will generate electronic itemized receipts sent to the Capitol Region Food Program so they can see specifically where, when and how much was spent.
There are also what Painchaud calls “checks and balances” in place. The voucher cannot be used to purchase alcohol, tobacco and lottery items.
The program and its mission are near and dear to her heart. Her role as program lead follows in her father’s footsteps, as he began the Holiday Project almost five decades ago.
“My father was always one who would look at something and say, okay, we can make it better,” she said.
Now, that’s what she hopes the switch to vouchers will accomplish – improving the program’s offerings for the better.
The program is open to residents of towns in the surrounding the Concord area. To apply, you must reside in Allenstown, Boscawen, Bow, Canterbury, Chichester, Concord, Contoocook, Dunbarton, Epsom, Hopkinton, Loudon, Pembroke, Penacook, Pittsfield, Salisbury, Suncook, Warner or Webster.
Applications are processed by 33 partner agencies and will be accepted through Nov. 30. To learn more about the partner agencies in your area, visit www.capitalregionfoodprogram.org/holiday-project-2022/.