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OPINION

Gratitude for our mission to feed hungry families

We know that there will be no vaccine to fix hunger, and we’re going to be left responding to the economic ruin for years to come.

Cars lined the street as people waited to pick up a Thanksgiving turkey at a Boston food pantry last month.
Cars lined the street as people waited to pick up a Thanksgiving turkey at a Boston food pantry last month.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Food insecurity has become a devastating crisis throughout our country, including right here in Massachusetts. Before the coronavirus took hold, our team at the Greater Boston Food Bank distributed about 1 million pounds of food each week to about 415,000 people each month across Eastern Massachusetts. Today we distribute about 2.5 million pounds weekly to nearly 600,000 people every month — and that number is on the rise.

Yet the GBFB passed other milestones in 2020. Among the most significant was the 29th work anniversary of Juan Encarnacion, the longest-serving member of Team GBFB and a Class A truck driver. When his motorcycle roars into the GBFB parking lot at 6 a.m., that’s the signal that Juan is on-site and ready to start the day.

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And Juan is not alone. When the pandemic hit, the GBFB immediately became aware that, overnight, our workforce was the most valuable and essential asset to our foundation and the communities we serve.

In November, Feeding America released a report that showed the rate of food insecurity in Massachusetts has increased 59 percent since 2018, the highest increase in the nation. That number represents 1 in 5 children. Worse, with COVID-19 and the cascading effect on our nation’s economy, it’s expected that more than 14 percent of Massachusetts residents will have trouble securing enough food this year. Across the nation, 1 in 8 people reported they don’t have enough food week to week, according to a Census Bureau survey taken in November.

We have seen images of lots full of cars waiting outside of food pantries in Texas. Closer to home, we’ve experienced people lining up outside of food pantries across the state.

People lined up in their cars to receive Thanksgiving meal boxes that included turkey and pantry items from the Tarrant Area Food Bank, Nov. 20, in the AT&T Stadium parking lot, in Arlington, Texas. The food giveaway, to help people during the COVID-19 pandemic and the holidays, was the largest in the organization's history.
People lined up in their cars to receive Thanksgiving meal boxes that included turkey and pantry items from the Tarrant Area Food Bank, Nov. 20, in the AT&T Stadium parking lot, in Arlington, Texas. The food giveaway, to help people during the COVID-19 pandemic and the holidays, was the largest in the organization's history.Yffy Yossifor/Associated Press

In these bleak months of COVID when I walk through our warehouse, I can’t get from one end of the building to the other without being stopped by team members who want to say thank you. For many, it’s a thank you for the job and their essential pay, but most of the team consistently express their gratitude for our mission to feed hungry families. They thank me for the privilege of being a part of this response and providing purpose. I return the gratitude.

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This team is filled with dedicated and passionate people like Juan who are up and at it before the first light of morning, giving it their all, and coming back the next day to do it again. They know they are the bridge between hungry families and nutritious food. Their work is physical, and it is exhausting. The pace has been exhausting as the volume grows every day — all driven by unprecedented need and demand, with no end in sight.

Between March 12 and today, GBFB has seen the number of people visiting our pantry partners double. Many factors tripped by the COVID-19 pandemic have driven hundreds of thousands of people to food pantries for the first time in their lives. They are reliant on the food that our warehouse workers pack and Juan and other GBFB truck drivers deliver.

I can’t help but see the irony as we delve into the holiday season on the heels of the largest holiday meal, Thanksgiving, that we are experiencing the largest hunger crisis in recent history. Unfortunately, we know that there will be no vaccine to fix hunger, and we’re going to be left responding to the economic ruin for years to come. It’s hard to imagine it took food insecurity rates more than 10 years to recover from the 2008 recession. Unfortunately, we’re worse off now.

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A significant and needed stopgap that could send relief to the social sector and the people we serve right now is congressional action. Lawmakers need to set aside their politics and fulfill their duty to the American people. Specifically, Congress needs to boost and expand the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, remove any access barriers, and enact our largest economic stimulus program in the nation.

Juan recently equated his job to Joe Biden’s catchphrase “Help is on the way!” Every day, Juan and every other helper on the front lines do their jobs to help feed hungry Americans. In the meantime, we need members of Congress to do their job and pass a coronavirus relief package.

Catherine D’Amato is the president and CEO of the Greater Boston Food Bank.