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By Lara Bricker[email protected]

EXETER — Soup from the Black Trumpet or homemade comfort food from the Green Bean is not what you would expect to find on the menu at a food pantry. 

Take Out Hunger is changing that. 

The goal is simple, to provide take-out food from area restaurants to feed the hungry. 

Three local women, who met years ago when their children were in elementary school, teamed up to launch the program this month under the umbrella of Gather in Portsmouth. 

“I was concerned about the impact of COVID on the local restaurants and also concerned about the growing issue of food insecurity,” said Portsmouth resident Helen Crowe, who had heard about a program called Cook it Forward in Wisconsin, where restaurants and non-profits collaborated to tackle hunger. “It makes perfect sense to pair supporting restaurants with feeding the hungry.” 

Crowe reached out to Carol Bridges, another former Exeter resident now living in Fremont, with the idea. 

“Her timing was so perfect,” Bridges said. “My mom had just passed away, I was sitting at home feeling sad and lonely and I was like, ‘Yes, I want to help you,’ so it’s given me a purpose and a focus.” 

Another woman they met in the days of the Exeter Elementary PTO, Deanna MacDonald, also joined the effort. Gather signed on as the program’s fiscal sponsor, meaning the funding could be handled through the existing nonprofit, leaving the organizers free to fundraise, then recruit restaurants and nonprofits to take part. 

One restaurant that signed on immediately was the Green Bean in Exeter. Lori Whitney, who owns the restaurant with her husband Jeff, knew Bridges because their mothers had been in the same long-term care facility. Whitney’s mother also passed away last year. 

“When I heard she was doing this, I was like this is so great,” Whitney said, adding she had heard a story on public radio about a person in Texas who ordered takeout from a restaurant in Los Angeles with a message for them to give it to someone in need. 

Whitney reached out to St. Vincent de Paul’s pantry in Exeter at the same time someone from Take Out Hunger called them. It all felt meant to be, she said. Not only because it was a way to help feed those in need, but as a lifeline to restaurants like hers that have seen a decline in revenue. 

“It’s probably down 60 percent, if not more,” Whitney said of the restaurant’s business. “I have photos of last November, all three rooms are packed at lunch time. I have photos now where there would be three people in the restaurant. It’s sort of frightening.” 

Working with Take Out Hunger came at just the right time. “We have done our best to keep our staff employed, some of them have been with us for years,” she said. “We’re really motivated to stay open.” 

Restaurants are paired with a nonprofit for a month, with food distribution handled through the organizations, not the volunteers from Take Out Hunger. In Portsmouth, Operation Blessing is working with White Heron, Cross Roads House with The Kitchen, and Gather with the Black Trumpet. The Railpenny Tavern is also coming on board. 

The program also came at a critical time for area nonprofits who are experiencing unprecedented need since the pandemic began. Gather has doubled the number of clients they serve each month. 

“We’re doing 200,000 pounds of food a month,” said Deb Anthony, the executive director of Gather. “When COVID hit, the only way we were going to be able to serve people in need is outdoors and we started doing mobile markets right away.” 

Those mobile markets have seen the most growth. Chef Evan Mallett, of the Black Trumpet, is preparing 100 to 150 meals a week for Gather, most of which are distributed through the mobile markets. “I think it’s really special because it creates a dignity,” Anthony said of the chef-prepared food. “There’s a lot of dignity in getting food that feels like it was made especially for you.” 

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Mallett told her of an email he received from someone who received a cream of mushroom soup he made for the program. “Never did I think I would have this amazing, delicious soup from the Black Trumpet, something that I could never afford,” the person wrote. 

St. Vincent de Paul in Exeter has experienced a similar increase in need, with food now distributed weekly instead of monthly. 

“We have a senior delivery program that’s almost quadrupled,” said Molly Zirillo, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul. “Those are folks that are very vulnerable and had limited resources pre-pandemic.” 

St. Vincent de Paul seeks monetary donations, as one dollar can buy approximately $50 at the New Hampshire Food Bank and has relied on support from the community. They are delighted to take part in Take Out Hunger. 

“It’s great because it’s a local offering,” she said, adding being able to receive meals from local restaurants is not usually in the budget of those they serve. “So, to be able to provide them with local restaurant food is fantastic. We’re thrilled that the Green Bean is the first to step up to the plate.” 

The organizers from Take Out Hunger are working to increase private and corporate donations. Riverwoods in Exeter and Durham just came on as a corporate sponsor and the Alliance for Greater Good is hosting a virtual Cocktails for a Cause event on Feb. 4 to benefit the program. As of now, the goal is to see the program continue until spring. 

“I think this is the most difficult time for restaurants that decided to stay open for the winter and I think it’s also the most difficult time for people that are being served,” Crowe said. “Restaurants have always been quiet partners with various nonprofits in addressing hunger. Now I think it’s important for us to step up and support them.” 

The employees of the Green Bean are eager to get started making meals like beef stroganoff, pasta, soups, and fresh bread.   

“It makes you feel good,” Whitney said of having a way to help others during the midst of the pandemic. “I hope that the community recognizes how important it is, especially for those less fortunate.”