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More and more Bostonians struggle to feed themselves as a resurgent pandemic approaches

Citywide need for food stamps has jumped more than 20 percent

Pastor Elaine Mendes at the Revival Chelsea Pantry carried a box load of food to those waiting outside on Broadway in Chelsea.
Pastor Elaine Mendes at the Revival Chelsea Pantry carried a box load of food to those waiting outside on Broadway in Chelsea.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Dayanara Bacerra, a widowed mother of three, spends a big part of her day at the Faith Pentecostal Church in Dorchester once every two weeks.

She arrives at 10 a.m. on a recent November day to put her name on the list, lining up with people bundled in hats, jackets, and masks, many chatting in Spanish as they wait for the food pantry to open. Then she goes home and returns at noon, to wait in line for an hour or two to receive a cart of food.

Bacerra said the nearest grocery store, a Stop & Shop, is too expensive, and prices are rising in many others. Indeed, meat and poultry prices have risen 5 percent since the pandemic began, federal figures show, adding dollars to the food bills of people with extremely tight budgets.

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“The other day I was in the store, and just bought a few things, but when I got to the cashier it came to $53,” said Bacerra, who gets by on her late husband’s veteran’s benefits. “It’s really hard when you think you have your budget planned out, but everything keeps changing.”

That’s the reality for thousands of families in Boston as the economic and health ravages of the pandemic, combined with food price increases, have produced a rising tide of food insecurity. More than one-third of residents in Bacerra’s Dorchester ZIP code now rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps — more than a 20 percent increase since February.

Citywide, the number of people receiving SNAP benefits has increased by 21.2 percent since the pandemic began, food stamp data show, outpacing the statewide SNAP increase of 15.9 percent. But food insecurity is concentrated in low-income neighborhoods, including one ZIP code in Roxbury where over half of residents now rely on food stamps.

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The pandemic has only made worse existing inequality in access to healthy food that people with low income face. During the worst of the outbreak, families who live far from big grocery stores had to turn to expensive corner markets with less, if any, fresh food or risk riding public transportation during the pandemic.

The current spike of coronavirus cases could be even worse for food insecure families than the spring, experts say — at least economically. Government stimulus checks have long since dried up, and the winter weather likely will bring another spate of unemployment. Advocates for the most vulnerable fear food pantry shutdowns, like those seen in the spring. And crucially, advocates said, public support has dwindled.

Laura Cowie-Haskell, a volunteer for mutual aid group Roslindale Cares, said dwindling support forced the group to end one of its programs, which gave grocery store gift cards to people in need.

At the high point, Cowie-Haskell said, they were distributing gift cards for $75 to $100 to as many as 30 families around Roslindale every week. But they ended the program because there weren’t enough donations.

“It just sort of tapered off,” she said. “I guess they just thought people didn’t need money or food anymore.”

But that is far from the truth. An examination of state data shows applications for SNAP increased in every ZIP code across Boston, but there were much higher increases in the city’s lowest income neighborhoods.

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Take the 02116 ZIP code, which includes most of the Back Bay and part of the South End. It had under 2,000 people on SNAP before the pandemic, and fewer than 200 people applied between February and June.

By contrast, in the 02121 ZIP code, which includes the Grove Hall and Washington Square areas of Roxbury, about 11,500 people were already on SNAP before the pandemic. During the same time frame, 2,300 more people applied for SNAP — bringing the total to more than half the ZIP code’s population.

Now, as winter approaches, the latest state data show some neighborhoods, such as Dorchester and Roxbury, are seeing a second increase in SNAP recipients after a summer when the numbers declined.

Groceries are expensive in Eastern Massachusetts — 24 percent more expensive than the national average, according to a 2019 report from Feeding America. Partly as a result, Massachusetts has seen the highest percentage increase of residents facing food insecurity of all states, according to the advocacy group Feeding America.

SNAP benefits, monthly payments for low-income people that can be spent on groceries, average $210 a month, and they can mean the difference between eating and going hungry for many people.

Elderly residents and people with disabilities or preexisting conditions already are more likely to rely on SNAP, but one-third of recipients are from working families. SNAP recipients in Massachusetts also are more likely to be Black, Hispanic, or people of color — groups disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

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To be sure, SNAP data only tells part of the story, and in some areas, such as East Boston and Roslindale, the severity of the food security issue might be underrepresented because some residents can’t access welfare due to their immigration status.

Cowie-Haskell from Roslindale Cares said she is particularly worried about undocumented immigrants, who sometimes don’t access community support services due to fear of retribution.

“Some of those people won’t come out to a service if they don’t know who’s running it,” she said. “And they’re already not getting the meager government assistance. I don’t know how they’re surviving.”

Mitch Hopperstad, a volunteer at Faith Pentecostal church, said he is worried that if COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Boston, many food pantries will have to close like they did in the spring to protect elderly volunteers, which would be devastating for people who depend on them even more in the pandemic.

For those on SNAP, initiatives like the Healthy Incentives Program, which offers money back when buying produce at farmer’s markets, can be helpful. But going into winter, the majority have closed.

Others say that low-income working people struggle to take advantage of the food pantry system.

“A lot of folks are working multiple jobs, and the food pantries typically are [open] during the day when a lot of these folks are working,” said Amanda Trombley, marketing manager at Food for Free, a Cambridge organization providing food to locations across Cambridge and Boston.

Those hardest hit financially during the pandemic also live in neighborhoods where people do a significant amount of their shopping at convenience stores because of a lack of access to groceries.

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Mohammed Alazad, who owns MaMa Supermarket, a small corner store on Blue Hill Avenue in Mattapan, said he saw an increase in profits from March through June, with customers choosing to do much more of their food shopping at his store.

The nearest large grocery store is a mile away, so many would have to take public transport to get there. Plus, his prices are slightly cheaper than a convenience store, and he stocks a small produce selection. Alazad said he also saw an increase in people using EBT and SNAP, which he said now comprises almost half his sales.

MaMa Supermarket sells some fresh food, but this isn’t true for many small stores. Fresh produce is much harder to store, and before March, there was less demand. But when state and local governments restricted movement in the spring, many people found themselves without an option near their home to buy fresh food.

The 47,500 people who live in ZIP code 02124, which includes half of Blue Hill Avenue and the Codman Square and Ashmont areas of Dorchester, know very well about lack of access to fresh food. The entire neighborhood has only two large grocery stores. That’s one grocery store for about every 23,800 people.

By comparison, Allston has four large grocery stores to serve a much smaller population, which translates to one store for every 5,800 people.

“There’s a long history in this part of Boston, particularly in Dorchester and Roxbury, that there are no grocery stores,” said Bruce Shatswell, a historian of the area. “Most of these places don’t sell fresh produce, so [they’re] not only a food desert, but a desert of produce.”

Joy Gary, a food access advocate who sits on the Boston Food Access Council, said it’s not fair that people who have the least should have to travel so far to meet their food needs.

“I personally will travel, you know, five, six, maybe 10 or 20 miles to be able to get really good food, but not everyone can do that and not everyone will do that,” she said. “And realistically, we shouldn’t have to do that.”

In May, the state allowed people to use SNAP benefits online in an effort to make it easier for low-income families to buy groceries. But the option is limited to two vendors: Amazon and Walmart.

The city also has stepped in to provide additional funding to existing services, including food pantries and organizations such as Fair Foods, which sells produce rejected by supermarkets for $2 a bag in low-income areas. But advocates said these resources are Band-Aids over deeper problems, including housing insecurity, child care, and unemployment.

“It’s not that food isn’t available, it’s that people don’t have any money,” said Nancy Jamison, who founded Fair Foods in 1988. “So until we start sharing money, we’ll keep making up new words and new phrases, and the only problem is, there’s no money.”

Brooke Williams, a journalist and associate professor of the practice of computational journalism at Boston University, contributed to this story.

If you need help, Project Bread’s FoodSource Hotline can be reached by calling 800-645-8333.