Helping the village feed itself

Occasionally, somebody says something to me that is humbling, in that it seems like something I should have known but did not. When this happens, if often gets my mind spinning on what can be done to possibly effect change. I want to share with you a story about just such an incident that happened a few short months ago. I was at a community listening session at Nashua High South back in the fall and there was a woman sitting next to me at my table. Somehow, we got way off topic (as is often the case with me) and ended up talking about public transportation. What the woman shared with me was her experience with using our local city buses for her shopping. She is relatively low income and has no personal transportation, so the bus is a very important way for her to get around. She described her frustration at going on the bus to the supermarket to do her shopping, but then having to take a taxi home with her groceries.

I tried to picture this and must admit, that I was more than a little bit confused. Why would a person with limited income use a taxi for her grocery shopping? I asked her and her reply was that she was only allowed to take 2 bags on the bus, and since she needed more than that, she would use the taxi for transportation home. I didn’t know about this rule. I had no idea. But it got me thinking, so I started to do some investigating.

As it turns out, she is right. You really can only take two bags on the bus. This rule is enforced on our city buses for safety reasons. Of course, if a person came on the bus with 8 bags of groceries, it’s easy to imagine them not being able to fully control what they have, and you might end up with cans and jars of food rolling down the aisle, which could easily lead to injuries. I met with our transportation people and when they explained this to me, it made a lot of sense. However, our city bus service – the Nashua Transit System – is very interested in people using the buses, and they do see it as part of their mission to support people who might have limited mobility or limited incomes, so they were also really interested in coming up with a solution that would make things better. To their immense credit, they suggested that we look at the space available to a rider in front of them and come up with a dimension for the largest possible size grocery tote bag which can be accommodated. The limitation would still be two bags per rider, but the amount of groceries that could be carried would be much more.

When we met, we measured the space and looked at some different size bags that could fit. The size we came up with can, in fact, accommodate a lot of food. Great news… but nobody has these bags. My next step was to go out and get a few quotes for bags, but it turns out that they are fairly expensive, especially in the quantities we need. So, the project sat on my desk for a few months until, again just through lucky circumstance, I happened to mention the idea to a friend of mine who works at Southern New Hampshire Health. She told me that as an institution, they are looking for productive ways to invest resources in the community that enhance health and addressing food security is one of those areas of interest. As it turns out, she had some funding available to help with the project in terms of purchasing the bags, which was fantastic news to my ears.

The next step was figuring out how to effectively distribute the bags. As it turns out, our city bus department also had a great suggestion for that. When an individual goes to the grocery store on the bus, what if the driver would ask people getting off, if they are planning to do their grocery shopping and if they don’t have a good size tote bag with them, they could give the rider a voucher good for two bags. Then the rider could go to the service desk where a supply of bags would reside, hand in their voucher, and in return be given two of the new bags. We discussed this idea, and after working out some of the logistics and details, decided that it would be worth a try. At that point, our friends from Southern New Hampshire Health ordered the bags, which their purchasing department had found. I must say, also, that they really went above and beyond. Not only are the bags the right size – as big as can be for two to go with the rider on the bus – they are even heavy duty, insulated, and zip up on top.

Next stop in the journey was to make sure the supermarkets would be on board, and we have already gained agreement from several of them to participate in the program. Now we are looking to roll out the program starting in April in at least 4 different supermarkets in Nashua. This could not have happened without the willing and creative partnership with the Nashua Transit System, the desire to make a difference in the health of our community by Southern New Hampshire Health, the willingness of our supermarkets to go out of their way to help our residents in a creative food security program, and most importantly, the woman who was willing to share her frustration in one singular moment that for me is still a little embarrassing. How could I not know about this problem? Well I do now, but more importantly I am so excited that once again our community has rallied together to fix a problem and to prove to me that GREAT THINGS REALLY DO HAPPEN WHEN WE LIVE UNITED.

Mike Apfelberg is president of United Way of Greater Nashua.