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‘I’ve never seen anything like this kind of need’: Food pantries struggle to keep up with surge in demand

The line was long in Lawrence this week as people waited for groceries and gift cards in a church parking lot run by Neighbors in Need.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

They’ve come in heavy rain and waited in long lines in the morning cold, some in tears, sharing stories of desperation, of lost jobs, sick relatives, empty bank accounts, a pervading sense of hopelessness as winter nears.

At the Family Pantry in Harwich, Christine Menard arrived this week to find dozens of people waiting before the pantry opened for free turkeys — something she had never experienced before.

“This is absolutely the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said Menard, executive director of the food pantry on Cape Cod, where recent surveys have found nearly a quarter of the full-time population is food insecure — or lacking, at times, enough to eat — up from 10 percent before the pandemic. “It’s just a very bad situation.”


Demand at food pantries often rises during the holidays, but rarely have so many been without the basic ingredients of a Thanksgiving dinner — or any meal — as this year.

With so many unemployed, sick, or otherwise in need as a result of the pandemic, the calls for help have grown so much that food pantries have struggled to keep pace.

“It’s just a terrible time for a lot of people,” said Catherine D’Amato, president of the Greater Boston Food Bank, the largest hunger-relief organization in New England, which provides food to 190 towns and cities in Eastern Massachusetts. “We’re obviously in a crisis.”

Besides the line, people had to contend with the rain at a food distribution site in Lawrence.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Before the pandemic, the food bank distributed about 1 million pounds of food a week to some 415,000 people. Now, the organization distributes about 2.5 million pounds a week to more than 660,000 people, and that number has been rising steadily.

As many as one in seven people in the state are considered food insecure — about 1 million residents — up from one in 13 people before the pandemic, D’Amato said. Overall, the food-insecurity rate in Massachusetts has increased by 59 percent since March, more than any other state, according to Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief organization.


With the coronavirus spreading rapidly and unemployment potentially rising again, she and others worry that food insecurity will increase in the coming weeks. “As we approach a holiday season unlike any other, the need for food assistance in Massachusetts persists at historical rates,” she said.

Those fears have already been realized at Neighbors in Need, a food pantry in Lawrence that has already provided more than 1,600 Thanksgiving meals this week — about twice as many as before the pandemic.

“It’s utterly horrific,” said Linda Zimmerman, the group’s executive director. “I’ve never seen anything like this kind of need.”

This week, people have stood in lines in heavy rains to pick up meals, she said.

“It breaks your heart,” Zimmerman said. “But it’s getting worse. Every week, there are more people who need help.”

In Revere, where the virus has taken an especially heavy toll, the rise in need has been overwhelming.

The First Congregational Church of Revere Food Pantry used to distribute about 8,000 pounds of food a month. Now, with about six times as many families seeking food, it’s providing as much as 15,000 pounds — a week.

The pantry had to be moved to a school where people could drive through to pick up food, and now the line of cars stretches so far volunteers can’t see how many are waiting. They’ve also increased the number of volunteers helping them distribute food as much as eightfold.


On Thanksgiving, the pantry used to give away about 250 turkeys a year. Last weekend, it gave out 750.

“It’s mind-boggling,” said Wendy Baur, the food pantry’s director.

In Brockton, the Charity Guild now provides food to about 1,500 individuals a month, 500 more than before the pandemic. The need is so great the charity began opening on Saturdays and has had to make additional runs to supermarkets to increase its supply by as much as a ton a week.

“It’s just a dramatic increase from what we’ve seen,” said Laura Striese, the charity’s executive director.

The number of people seeking food has also been rising in wealthier communities. At Arlington Eats, where about 165 families a week received food assistance before the pandemic, a record 285 families were served over the past week — an increase of nearly 75 percent.

To reduce the dangers of the virus, the groceries are being delivered directly to families’ homes. With the need likely to grow further, Arlington Eats is trying to pace itself, said Andi Doane, executive director.

“This is a marathon, at this point,” she said. “We’re just trying to make it to the spring, when hopefully things will get better.”

David Abel can be reached at Follow him @davabel.