For the first time since 1974, the Capital Region Nutrition Program holiday project is taking on a new form this winter. In lieu of wrapped boxes of groceries for the holidays, recipients will receive a voucher to purchase their own groceries from Market Basket.
The move to a cash voucher allows people to choose the food they want around the holiday season. This could mean that a recipient buys a specific dinner or general groceries. Personal shopping also takes into account different dietary restrictions or cultural traditions, said Maria Manus Painchaud, the program’s holiday project leader.
“You can decide if it’s for your holiday dinner, or if it’s between Christmas and New Year’s, or if it’s for the first year. It doesn’t matter,” she said. “You decide what is in the best interest of you or your family.”
At its core, the mission remains the same – to alleviate hunger in the Concord region. This has been, and will continue to be, the focus of the capital region’s nutrition program, Painchaud said.
But when the pandemic halted the ability to personally assemble vacation boxes, it also gave the program a chance to reconsider its model.
The vouchers will be distributed to recipients on December 10th. They are valid until January 31st and can be used for a one-time purchase at participating Market Basket locations.
Since its inception, the holiday program has provided prepackaged boxes containing a holiday meal and meal supplement items for two to three weeks.
This production has been made possible in recent years thanks to a partnership with the New Hampshire National Guard. Boxes lined their distribution center while volunteers filled and bagged food for distribution.
But Painchaud heard unwanted items were sometimes discarded by recipients, contributing to food waste in the area, which contradicts the program’s mission of feeding individuals.
The program board was also concerned about the sustainability of their model. Their core group of volunteers was aging, and the logistics of assembling and distributing the boxes required as many hands as possible.
“The model we used earlier was not sustainable. There’s just no way to do that,” Painchaud said.
That’s when talks about coupons started. The change would allow for greater flexibility towards individual needs, reduce reliance on volunteers and potentially bring back former participants who have dropped out in recent years.
Enrollment in the program has steadily declined over the past decade. In 2012, 2,519 families received boxes. Before the pandemic in 2019, that number was 1,776.
But Painchaud admits she was initially hesitant.
She feared that coupons would be easily duplicated. To fix this, they are printed on paper that prints “invalid” when copied.
She worried that she would not be able to report to donors on the program’s success and metrics. However, Market Basket will generate electronic itemized receipts that will be sent to the Capitol Region Food Program so they can see exactly where, when and how much was spent.
There’s also what Painchaud calls “checks and balances.” The voucher cannot be used to purchase alcohol, tobacco and lottery items.
She cares deeply about the program and its mission. Her role as Program Director follows in the footsteps of her father, who began The Holiday Project almost five decades ago.
“My dad was always one to look at something and say, okay, we can do better,” she said.
Now she’s hoping that the move to coupons will do just that — improve the program’s offerings for the better.
The program is open to residents of towns and cities in 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 will be processed by 33 partner agencies and accepted until November 30th. To find out more about the partner agencies in your area, visit www.capitalregionfoodprogram.org/holiday-project-2022/.