From my interview with Kristen Coats, I have no doubt that the Upper Valley Haven in White River Junction is incredibly lucky to have her. The Walden University graduate in public health spent almost six years working for Dartmouth-Hitchcock where she coordinated the Upper Valley Heal program. It was at Dartmouth-Hitchcock that Coats says she developed a true appreciation for the fact that people are healthy if their environments are healthy.

Having been at the Haven for only a year, it’s easy to see that Coats infuses her work with that same passion today. As leader of the nutrition program, she has no problem talking effortlessly about all the different areas in which the program has grown. Healthy Eating is a component of the program that involves the community food shelf and reaches the most people, around 1400 households every month. The program began when staff and volunteers noticed that many people accessing the food shelf passed up a lot of the fresh produce that the Haven “is lucky enough to get on a daily basis,” say Coats.

The strategy involved the staff and volunteers seeing what’s available for the day, heading to the café kitchen – a cooking space with a pass-through to a large dining area – and working up a recipe with the available ingredients. People coming through can stop and chat with staff and see what recipe is being created for the day. If they’re interested, they receive a recipe card and a bag with the ingredients. At these times, the kitchen and connected café serve as a teaching model in which staff can explicitly teach or simply model a cooking process.

Newly launched in November, the Haven has started a small food pantry at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC) for new or expecting moms going through recovery. The pantry is accessible for moms to fill a bag of food staples such as eggs, milk, cheese, and canned goods once a week. There’s also a large focus on grab-and-go snacks for moms to get nutritious food before meetings or appointments. The food pantry remains open at night so that intensive outpatient clients going through treatment have access to the food as well.

The third dynamic program that described is the Haven’s involvement with the Ledyard Charter School located on Hanover St. in Lebanon. The public school serves about 40 students and doesn’t have the facilities for meal preparation and serving. The Haven has become an integral part of the program by being the school’s largest food donor. Through the non-traditional food process at the school, the students are gaining some valuable education by helping with menus for the week, food deliveries, and prepping. One of the goals is for students to have a better understanding of the current management of food systems. Through the program, breakfast is provided at the school along with snacks and bags of weekend food for students to take home.

How do these programs get funded? Coats can’t speak highly enough about the Vermont Food Bank and local grocers who donate fresh food and other products. Haven drivers pick up 18,000 pounds of food per week, which doesn’t include all of the donations. Willing Hands delivers to the Haven seven days a week as well. Willing Hands started in 2004 at the Hanover Food Co-op as a progressive food-recovery program. Members reach out to local farms and grocery stores and glean fields after harvest. Find out more about

Coats is extremely humble talking about her work. For her, a major achievement is helping someone make any small change to their diet. When it comes to food quality, she uses the phrase “little by slow” to remind herself and others, that food culture is intensely personal, and “that changing those behaviors can be a slow process in which the little victories amount to meaningful progress.” She explains that the Haven is constantly striving to create an equitable space for community members. I was quickly convinced that, when considering the resources, time, and coordinated efforts by volunteers and community businesses, the Haven food programs are indeed accomplishing some amazing things every day, every week and every month for our neighbors in need.