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More face hunger in Mass. as overwhelmed food pantries close

People waited in line for food outside a Salvation Army food pantry in Chelsea last week.
People waited in line for food outside a Salvation Army food pantry in Chelsea last week.Steven Senne/Associated Press

As the pandemic stretches into its third month, more people in Massachusetts are going hungry. Meanwhile, overwhelmed food pantries have closed and food-distribution networks are in dire need of support.

According to research released on Thursday from the nonprofit Feeding America, one in eight people in Eastern Massachusetts is predicted to experience food insecurity in 2020 due to the COVID-19 crisis. The organization, which represents a network of over 200 US food banks, said this is a 59 percent increase from its most recent pre-pandemic report, which had tallied that 1 in 13 people would be in need this year.

Statewide, the number of those in need has been predicted to increase by 53 percent during the crisis.

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The numbers on children are even more dire: Massachusetts overall is projected to experience an 81 percent increase in the number of children at risk of experiencing hunger in 2020; in Eastern Massachusetts it’s 93 percent, or one in six kids.

Massachusetts is projected to have the second-highest percentage change in the country for children living in food-insecure homes. (North Dakota is first, with a projected 96 percent increase in need.)

“Unfortunately, these new food insecurity projections do not surprise us as we have seen a dramatic increase in the demand for food in our region,” said Catherine D’Amato, CEO of the Greater Boston Food Bank. She said the emergency food network in Eastern Massachusetts, which includes 550 partner agencies, has demonstrated incredible "resiliency during this difficult time and continues to heroically adapt to the needs of an ever-increasing number of people, many of whom have never had to rely on a food pantry for assistance to feed their family.”

Even before the pandemic, Massachusetts was considered the most expensive state in terms of the cost of a meal. (Feeding America’s figures tally a meal cost at $3.63.) And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the price of groceries nationally grew 2.6 percent in April, the biggest increase from one month to the next since 1974.

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In March, as the pandemic began to grind the economy to a halt, the Greater Boston Food Bank saw its highest monthly demand for food in its 40-year history and distributed more than 8.1 million pounds of food to pantries and other partners in Eastern Massachusetts.

But in April, the demand grew even higher: The food bank distributed 9.5 million pounds of food.

Such demand is playing out statewide, as the number of families and individuals served in March by the state’s food pantries was up 46 percent from a year earlier.

Another sobering statistic: In Massachusetts, the rate of applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, has risen 360 percent since the pandemic began. And those numbers apply only to residents who are qualified. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates 8 percent of Massachusetts residents are noncitizens and therefore do not qualify for traditional safety net programs like SNAP.

In April, Governor Charlie Baker convened a Food Security Task Force to respond to the surging need, and earlier this week he announced Massachusetts would distribute $56 million to support groups working to address food insecurity throughout the state. The funds include $36 million in grants to support the infrastructure for food distribution, $12 million for the distribution of 25,000 family food boxes a week to food pantries throughout the state, $5 million to help promote access to healthy produce for those in need, and $3 million in immediate relief for pantries throughout the region.

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“These funds jump-start some of the recommendations to address urgent needs and food supply chain issues due to the COVID-19 pandemic for communities across the Commonwealth,” Baker said. “While COVID-19 has had a statewide impact, some of our communities and residents who have historically experienced food insecurity have been even more disproportionately impacted.”

Among the many troubling findings in the task force’s report: As of May 1, 107 food pantries in the state had closed "due to a variety of reasons, including lack of volunteers, inconsistent access to food, and being not able to handle the overwhelming new needs.” The Greater Boston Food Bank says that several dozen have been able to get back online since the start of the month. Project Bread reported that calls to its FoodSource Hotline have quadrupled since the crisis started.

The task force identified disrupted supply chains, overtaxed relief efforts, and fear of exposure to the virus in high transmission areas as contributing factors.

On Wednesday, several members of the task force wrote to state legislators, pushing them to “invest in increasing access to and utilization of federal nutrition programs,” arguing that SNAP provides $1.70 in economic stimulus for every $1 spent on food.

"The task force was working really fast, and it’s a complicated set of issues, and there were very specific tactical things from members of the committee that we felt still hadn’t been addressed,” said Jen Faigel, the president of CommonWealth Kitchen and a task force member who signed the letter.

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She said she’s glad to be part of a group that’s working so hard to address pressing concerns. But as the pandemic lasts, there’s still so much more to do.

“What are we doing to leverage the infrastructure of restaurants and small businesses and caterers to be part of the feeding solution?” she asked. “There is an opportunity to use the crisis as a way to prop up all the businesses and the employees, many of whom are undocumented and those most in need.”

Updated to reflect new information on some food pantries reopening in May.


Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.