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Salem Pantry hits the road with mobile markets

The Salem Pantry operates a mobile market at Espacio, a community center, on Congress Street.
The Salem Pantry operates a mobile market at Espacio, a community center, on Congress Street.The Salem Pantry

While the COVID-19 pandemic has residents across Massachusetts struggling, one food pantry in Salem has rapidly expanded to help the growing number of people in need.

Before the outbreak, the Salem Pantry operated mobile markets at Salem State University and at Espacio, a community center on Congress Street.

Now, backed by an army of new volunteers, the nonprofit has added 14 locations at schools, parks and housing developments, said Robyn Burns, the executive director.

"I think this pandemic has really shown how in every corner of the city, there’s a need,” said Burns, who started as the pantry’s first full-time director last month. “A lot of cities are experiencing this widespread need for support right now and we’re just trying to figure out how we can build that out for Salem.”

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Burns, who has a long history working for community food programs, said the experience of providing access to food amid a public health emergency is “unlike anything I would’ve imagined."

Mobile markets, which are similar to farmers markets, operate in several spots a day, covering 16 locations a week, she said.

Prior to the pandemic, the pantry provided free meals on weekends to Salem Public School students. With schools closed, the mobile markets now operate at several schools, providing fresh produce, such as tomatoes and peppers, along with staples like milk, rice, and beans in prepackaged containers.

State data show Salem school children are poorer than their peers across the state.

According to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 49.3 percent of 3,620 students in the district are considered economically disadvantaged, compared to the state average of 32.8 percent.

The Greater Boston Food Bank, which provides grant funding to the pantry, said 2018 data shows Salem has an estimated food insecurity rate of 11 percent, which is higher than the state, which is 10.3 percent.

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Despite increased demand for food, Burns said that everyone is “on the same level of trying to help each other.”

“It's been really energizing despite all of the fear and upheaval to people's lives,” she said. “Doing the physical work and being with community members that are trying to step up has been pretty inspiring to be a part of that.”

Burns, a Salem resident, is the first executive director in the pantry’s 30 year history. Samantha Johanson was hired in December to be Operations Manager and the two are the only full-time staff, according to a statement from the pantry.

“No one expected that Robyn would be joining in the midst of a worldwide pandemic that would immediately put her leadership skills to the test,” the pantry’s Board Chair and Treasurer Bonnie Henry said in the statement. “We are so blessed as an organization to have brought these two highly competent women on board.”

Burns previously worked as the Director of Programs at CitySprouts, an educational organization in Cambridge that teaches children about urban gardening. She said she has been working in similar organizations for over 15 years but said she wanted to work in her community.

She is heartened by the response of residents to help their neighbors in need.

The volunteer base has grown from about 15 per week before the crisis, to about 50 to 75 people, she said. The extra hands have allowed the pantry to staff its new locations.

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“All these people are volunteering to make this happen and that's another piece that's been really powerful,” she said. “People are just stepping up and we couldn't get everything done without this support.”

Stephanie Purifoy can be reached at Stephanie.Purifoy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @stephbpurifoy.