As the country awaits the returns of the presidential election and any prospects of another economic stimulus bill, one thing has remained consistent amid the pandemic: People in Massachusetts are going hungry. And the problem is only growing.
Massachusetts has seen the highest percent increase of residents facing food insecurity of all states, according to new projections released by Feeding America last Friday. The hunger rate in the state has increased 59 percent since 2018, representing more than 1 million people who are now struggling to get enough to eat. The child food-insecurity rate has also worsened, with one in five children in Massachusetts now living in food-insecure households, a 102 percent increase over pre-COVID-19 levels. (Norfolk County in Massachusetts has the highest percent change in child food-insecurity in the country, with a 163 percent increase in 2020 versus 2018.)
The overall food insecurity rate in Massachusetts is projected to reach 14.2 percent this year. The highest rates in the United States will be in Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, and Louisiana, which could each have more than 20 percent of their citizens facing hunger. And California is predicted to have 6.2 million people who are having trouble getting enough to eat, the largest total number of any state in the country.
“The need isn’t going anywhere,” said Catherine Drennan, the director of public affairs for the Greater Boston Food Bank, which served over 600,000 people in September, a 120 percent increase over last year.
November and December are typically some of the busiest months for local food banks, but the combined economic, political, and public health crises facing the Commonwealth will make this year unlike any other, said Drennan. She said the food bank is planning to provide 20 million meals as part of its annual Hunger Free Holidays campaign.
New issues with a federal food-distribution program have stoked anxieties further among local organizations working to provide food to those in need. Back in May, as part of the CARES Act, the USDA launched its $4.5 billion Farmers to Families Food Box program, working with US farmers to purchase and distribute boxes of agricultural products. During the first three rounds of the program, several vendors in New England were awarded eight-week contracts, and each built a network of local distributors to hand out hundreds of thousands of prepacked boxes filled with dairy, meat, and produce.
Many of the boxes ended up being distributed to local nonprofits — like the Brazilian Workers Center in Allston — which are operating outside the established regional food bank networks, having launched or expanded emergency food services as they saw the need in their communities.
“Since COVID-19, we’ve had to repurpose our regular services to meet food insecurity in the community,” said the Brazilian Workers Center’s executive director, Natalicia Tracy. “The Boston food banks weren’t equipped to handle the demand, and we saw a huge increase in need for food in Allston. So the USDA boxes were really critical.” The Brazilian Workers Center now feeds 500 families each week.
But the execution of the food box program has been fraught. Farmers who won contracts and planted crops for the program were left high and dry when they weren’t chosen as vendors in subsequent rounds. In some parts of the country, there were concerns about the nutritional value of the goods included in the boxes. The USDA also faced blowback last month after President Trump required that a signed letter from him be included in each box.
In the agency’s latest funding round announced last Friday, no Massachusetts vendors were awarded contracts. This will likely mean significant delays in getting the next round of local food distributions up and running, leaving partner organizations like Tracy’s scrambling to find sources for food as they head toward Thanksgiving. So earlier this week, she headed back to the store. “We’ve already purchased 1,200 pounds of rice, beans, and pasta, and some produce. We’re still trying to figure out whatever we can get our hands on,” she said.
Those who have been working with the USDA say that the changes will put undue pressure on the Massachusetts food bank system during its busiest season.
“In two weeks these pantries are going to burn through whatever dry goods they have in back stock," said Sean Buchanan, the vice president of sales at Costa Fruit and Produce, one of the local distributors whose vendor contract with the USDA was not renewed. He said Costa handed out more than 889,000 food boxes to 400 partners since the program launched, only to have to turn off the faucet for the distributions on Monday.
“It’s a perfect storm for food insecurity," he said.
The USDA’s decision also forced produce distributor Katsiroubas Bros. to lay off 40 staff members overnight, said Torry Katsiroubas Stamm, the company’s president. Over the past several months, the Boston-based distributor had set up an elaborate supply chain and partnered with the nonprofit Boston Area Gleaners to deliver more than 10 million pounds of food to nonprofits, public housing sites, and food banks throughout New England, she said. The program has helped keep her business afloat as her restaurant and food service accounts have cut back on orders amid the pandemic.
Now, that supply chain has been upended, and a new company in Long Island, N.Y., has been given the contract and has to start over creating a distribution plan from scratch, she said.
“Our partners have been calling us, and we don’t have anything to tell them,” Katsiroubas said. “They’re panicked." She said she feels the same level of stress she heard from her customers back in March, “with everyone saying ‘What do we do?' We’re still here, it feels like it’s happening again.”
“Before this program got up and running, we saw a lot of nonprofits that had never moved food or dealt with food moving thousands of boxes or grocery bags a week,” said Dylan Frazier, the director of strategy for the Boston Area Gleaners, which worked as both a vendor and partner with local distributors to make USDA food box deliveries. “We’re telling people you have to call the food bank, we don’t have any food for you,” he said. “People are flipping out. It’s panic mode. There’s still a line of a thousand or two thousand people with no food.”
Food pantry lines have already been getting longer over the past several months at the Salvation Army of Chelsea and East Boston, said Captain Isael Gonzalez, who oversees the emergency food program there. So, having to wait for the USDA program to restart with new vendors from out of state means he’s now struggling to serve the 700 families that seek out his services daily.
“Through the USDA program, we’ve been distributing over 2,100 boxes each week to families out of our office, and the good part is the boxes come prepacked, and there’s no labor on our end,” Gonzales said. “Not having those boxes is going to have a huge impact: It’s more trips to the Greater Boston Food Bank, more relying on local donations from different resources, and a lot of labor intensity on our part too.”
Ultimately, the USDA Food Box program provides just a small percentage of the overall food assistance currently in place in the region. But “we’ll take every food source we can and it’s definitely helpful,” Drennan, of the Greater Boston Food Bank, said. More importantly, she added, the program is set to expire by year’s end, and “unless another stimulus package comes out and they decide to renew, I don’t know what will happen.”