As increasing numbers of area families struggle to put enough food on the table, a Gloucester-based anti-hunger organization is preparing for an expansion that could help them better meet the need.
The Open Door is nearing a goal of raising $1.7 million to expand its Gloucester headquarters at 28 Emerson Ave. The project calls for constructing a connector linking that building with an adjacent building at 26 Emerson Ave. that the group purchased last May, and constructing a new, larger commercial kitchen.
About $1.6 million has been pledged or received for the project, and Julie LaFontaine, president and CEO of The Open Door, said the group is confident of raising the additional $100,000 needed.
Construction is targeted to begin this summer and be completed by the end of December, though LaFontaine said that timetable might be set back by construction slowdowns related to the novel coronavirus crisis.
“There’s been a lot of hard work and planning that has gone into teeing up the project and now it’s just a matter of when we start,” she said.
Founded in 1978, The Open Door works to alleviate food insecurity in Gloucester and nine surrounding communities. Last year it served 8,287 people through its pantry and mobile market programs, and served 32,000 meals at its community suppers, distributing about 2 million pounds of food overall.
The expansion is needed for the organization to keep pace with growing demand for its food services, a need LaFontaine said is likely to increase because of the pandemic and its economic impacts.
Even with the strong economy of recent years, The Open Door has seen a steady rise in the number of people it serves. That increase slowed to 3 percent in 2019 — down from 17 percent in 2018 — but LaFontaine said it shows local need for food assistance remains strong.
“I wish it would go away,” Dave Sudbay, a board member of The Open Door, said of hunger in the region. “But unfortunately in the times we are living in, there is more need now than ever before.
“There is a large group of elderly people that just can’t rely on Social Security to make it work because the cost of health care and homeownership is extremely high in this area,” added Sudbay, a Gloucester resident. “There are people between jobs or who get injured. And there is always that segment that is continuing to look for help. So we’re here.”
The Open Door purchased its existing building in 2010 after having leased it for 14 years. The group also leases space in a downtown Ipswich building.
The new kitchen — twice the size of the existing one it is replacing — will significantly expand the capacity of The Open Door’s meal and food pantry programs, and enable the group to better accommodate the many volunteers that assist with food preparation.
The new kitchen also will provide expanded areas for both cold and dry storage, which in turn will open up space for a planned initiative in which a dietician will work with individual clients who have health needs to give them medically tailored boxes of groceries.
The two buildings also will undergo renovations and retrofits.
Gloucester Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken welcomed the project, calling The Open Door an essential resource to the community and praising its respectful approach to clients.
“They make people feel at home and feel that they can go in there and not be judged,” she said. “It’s just amazing — I love that place.
“I was thrilled they want to expand because unfortunately hunger is expanding in everyone’s community, Theken added. ”I wouldn’t be able to function through this whole virus [crisis] if it wasn’t for The Open Door and their getting food to people in need.”
The project comes as The Open Door has modified its operations to meet the novel coronavirus crisis. Both of its pantries have switched to curbside distribution, and meals are made daily for both take-out and delivery. Volunteers are providing no-contact delivery of groceries to homebound elders and those who are quarantined.
The organization served overall between 700-800 households with more than 32,000 pounds of food the week of March 16 to 23 and expects the need to only rise in the face of layoffs and shutdowns.
“We are focusing all our best efforts now on helping keep the community we love and serve safe,” LaFontaine said.
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.