fb-pixel Skip to main content

As food insecurity soars, Bread of Life looks to break ground on new Malden building

From left, volunteer Andee, 12, his sister Kailee, 14, and mother Shia Shieh pack bags of assorted produce to be distributed at Bread of Life, a food pantry in Malden.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

MALDEN — For four decades, Bread of Life has provided community meals and other food assistance to residents north of Boston who have fallen on hard times. On a recent weekday afternoon, Gabriella Snyder Stelmack walked through the rented two-floor building the nonprofit has occupied since 2011.

It’s a rabbit’s warren of musty storage rooms and wood-paneled offices. Staff coordinators and young volunteers bustled about, packing the day’s grocery deliveries.

“We need [a] modern facility, which we can easily sanitize,” said Snyder Stelmack, the organization’s executive director. “We’ve needed it for years, and now we need it even more so.”


Since its founding in 1980, Bread of Life has served free food out of schools, churches, municipal buildings, and other spaces around Malden, Medford, and Everett. For nearly half that time, the organization has dreamed of building its own facility, where staff and volunteers could serve weeknight meals, operate their food pantry, and warehouse the groceries that get delivered to seniors and families struggling with food insecurity, all under one roof.

After years of false starts, a near-constant search for makeshift spaces, and the sudden bankruptcy in 2015 of a longtime nonprofit partner, Bread of Life is finally hoping to break ground by the beginning of next year on its new building. The facility will include two floors of food services and office space and a third floor that will provide 14 low-income housing units.

The project could not come to fruition at a better time: Due to the COVID-19 outbreak and the ensuing financial crisis, Bread of Life has seen the need for its programs skyrocket.

“We need [a] modern facility, which we can easily sanitize,” said Gabriella Snyder Stelmack, Bread of Life's executive director. “We’ve needed it for years, and now we need it even more so.”Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Snyder Stelmack said the average number of meals served on a given evening Tuesday through Friday each week has risen dramatically in recent months, from 80 per night prior to the virus to 120 to 145 of late. The food pantry in Malden, which has been converted to a grab ‘n’ go model since the state issued its stay-at-home advisory in March, has been processing record numbers, serving a new high of 196 families on one Friday in early July.


Food assistance programs across the state are reporting higher demand. In Amesbury, Our Neighbors’ Table registered about 800 new “guests,” as recipients are called, from mid-March to May, said executive director Lyndsey Haight.

“In a normal month we’d register maybe 60 new people,” she said.

Every food program Haight knows has seen similar increases, she said. Most if not all pantries have closed to visitors and instituted curbside pickup, with online ordering. That’s one silver lining, Haight said.

“For people who have been afraid to get food before COVID,” she said, “it’s been a discreet way for them to be able to get help and overcome some of the stigma.”

According to Feeding America, a nonprofit that represents more than 200 food banks across the country, one in eight residents of Greater Boston will be in danger of going hungry this year due to the coronavirus and its economic implications. Compare that with a pre-pandemic report that predicted one in 13 would need food assistance this year.

Volunteer Larry Mervin at Bread of Life, a food pantry in Malden.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Bread of Life’s long, narrow building on Eastern Ave. in Malden, part of which sits on the site of Governor John Volpe’s former family home, will be demolished to make way for the new facility.


The new pantry will be “superette”-style, said Snyder Stelmack; the new kitchen will be big enough to prepare the weeknight community meals, which have been served most recently at Malden’s First Baptist Church and an American Legion post. For the past several years, Bread of Life — which calls itself a “non-sectarian, faith-based ministry” — has served Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners in the cafeteria at Malden High School.

“God knows what’s going to happen this year” with the holiday meals, said Snyder Stelmack.

The new building project carries a total estimated cost of $9.1 million. Metro North Housing Corp., which will oversee the residential units, is contributing $4.8 million. Of the $4.3 million remaining, Bread of Life has raised $2.5 million in its “Under One Roof” fund-raising campaign and expects to borrow another $1 million. That leaves slightly less than $800,000 to raise to reach the goal.

Snyder Stelmack joined Bread of Life as a volunteer coordinator in the late 1980s. She’d come to Boston from upstate New York to work in a lab at Harvard —- she has a degree in biochemistry — and to sing opera. She had an accompanist who worked at the Pine Street Inn; volunteering there led her to feel maybe she wouldn’t find her life’s calling in a science lab.

Passing through the Malden building, she stopped to say hello to a few of the volunteers. Daniel Nguyen, 15, of Malden said he is donating his time this summer in part because his grandparents have benefited from Bread of Life’s food programs.


Dan Urchuk, a rising senior at Melrose High School, said he learned about the organization from a friend’s mother, a grant writer for the program.

“My help, I think, is needed,” he said while stacking cardboard boxes for deliveries. “We’re doing, like, 250 families this week.”

Volunteers Rochelle Bluefort (left) and Elizabeth Emerald sort packages of meat at Bread of Life.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Despite the logistical difficulties created by the virus, Haight of Our Neighbors’ Table suggests that the hard work of raising awareness about the need for food assistance programs is paying off.

“The platform for food insecurity is so much louder than any of us ever expected,” she said. “It’s a direct result of us beating the drum over and over for the last 10 years, working together to make our communities aware of the need.”

Jack Cocio, executive director of the South Shore Community Action Council in Plymouth, said he thinks the council’s food resources program may see the amount of food it distributes rise from 500,000 pounds last year to 750,000 this year. Almost all the group’s support comes from private donors and businesses, he said.

“We do a lot of assistance with very little money from the federal government, or the state government, for that matter,” he said. If the unemployment crisis persists, the need will rise, he predicted.

“We believe there’s going to be significant stress on families,” Cocio said. “There’s a big wave coming.”

As with most similar programs, Bread of Life partners with an extensive network of businesses, civic organizations, and social services. These include Mystic Valley Elder Services, the American Muslim Center of Everett, and the Greater Boston Food Bank, which supplied almost half of the nearly 1.5 million pounds of food that Bread of Life distributed last year.


“Our connection has always been the people we serve,” said Kathleen McKenna, a Bread of Life board member who has been involved since 1987.

Out by the bike path that runs past Bread of Life’s main entrance, a man sat quietly in the passenger seat of his parked car. The car was piled high with trash bags full of his belongings.

John Michel, 76, said he lost his home a few years ago, after his wife’s medical problems drained their savings. She died in 2017.

In better times, they had volunteered to serve food for Bread of Life at St. Paul’s Church.

“My wife was a visiting nurse,” said Michel. “That’s what she did — helped people.” Now he lives out of his car, and he relies on Bread of Life for much of his food.

Michel has an application for one of Metro North’s rooms to be built on the top floor of the new building, the Bread of Life staff said.

On the paneled wall of one room inside the old building, office manager Marcia Manong keeps a large Native American dream catcher. It’s there, she said, to catch “all the dreams of Bread of Life.

“We’ve got big dreams,” she said with a smile.

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.

Volunteer Henry Tomaszewski Jr. unloads fruit from a truck at Bread of Life.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
Volunteers break down boxes from a food delivery at Bread of Life.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe