As food pantries stretch to accommodate a surge of hungry guests, lines aren’t the only barrier to access. Pride — and fear — can be as daunting as crowds, even as roughly 1 in 8 people in Eastern Massachusetts experience food insecurity as a result of COVID-19.
“There are barriers: Fear of the unknown. Hesitancy to go. Documentation issues. Running into a neighbor, a coworker, a friend. Those are very real. We have a requirement with our partners that nobody be turned away,” says Jonathan Tetrault, vice president of community impact at the Greater Boston Food Bank. His organization partners with more than 500 hunger-relief agencies, including community meal programs and pantries, throughout 190 towns in Eastern Massachusetts.
Food-access workers urge potential guests not to be wary. In Massachusetts, pantries working with the GBFB are bound by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and state Department of Agricultural Resources guidance to refrain from requiring photo IDs and Social Security numbers when distributing federal emergency food assistance. The Massachusetts Attorney General’s office this week plans to issue formal guidance around identification protocols.
“Hunger is one of the most pressing issues we are facing right now, with food insecurity for children doubling during this public health crisis, and the overall rate increasing by almost 60 percent. Our guidance to food pantries is that they should not require Social Security information or photo identification from those seeking assistance, and they should take a hard look at any documentation they collect that may create barriers to access,” Attorney General Maura Healey said in a statement to the Globe this week.
Pantry workers want to get through the red tape; they’re primarily concerned with helping whomever needs it.
“I feed anyone who comes to my door. I would never leave anybody hanging,” says Kathleen Cunningham, program coordinator for the Watertown Food Pantry, where traffic has increased four-fold since March. “Many of my clients are refugees. You have to make sure they’re in a comfort zone.”
“Some people might have an outstanding warrant. Some people might have a legal issue. Some people might have an immigration issue. They still have great need, and we want to make them as comfortable as possible. Not making them show ID is a great way of letting them know they’re safe and welcome,” says Thomas Strange, food pantry coordinator at the Elizabeth Peabody House in Somerville.
“I don’t make anyone prove anything. I ask your name in a friendly manner and where you’re from originally. Even if you don’t want to give me that, I don’t care. We want people to feel welcome and help them. I go to the food line itself and hand out cookies,” he says.
Then there’s the psychological factor: During the pandemic, people unused to accepting help suddenly require charity for the first time. It’s a disconcerting shift in identity.
“People need to get past the stigma of using us. I think that historically there has been a stigma in getting help from the town. It’s an American ideal: You’re supposed to pull yourself up by the bootstraps and not expect help from anyone,” says Maya Plotkin, a board member at the Westwood Food Pantry.
Her client list has increased by roughly 20 percent since March. She used to serve elderly guests on a fixed income. Now she sees more first-time families.
“A lot of people are very proud, unfortunately, and you have to release that barrier a little bit and make a friendship with them,” says Cunningham, from the Watertown pantry.
Friendship was easier before the pandemic, when guests could mingle, browse, and form connections with volunteers. Now, she says, socially distanced encounters can be very transactional. There’s the optic of bread lines instead of social errands. It reinforces the sense that pantries are for the truly desperate.
“A lot of people will immediately say or act like there are people who need [food] more: ‘I shouldn’t be taking this. I’m not that bad off,’” says Strange. “But we want to get them in early, before actual desperation hits.”
Yet food insecurity is shrouded in a cloud of otherness.
“People don’t understand the difference between food insecurity and hunger,” says Amanda Trombley. She’s a marketing manager at Cambridge food-rescue group Food For Free. She received food assistance years ago, while pregnant and going through a divorce, but she struggled with the stigma associated with it.
“There’s this barrier: ‘Oh, that’s for me? I thought it was people who were starving right now.’ It’s not only for people who literally have nothing,” she says. It’s also for people who feel stretched thin, who might not know if they should pay for rent or for groceries.
People like Virginia Cuello, who moved to Cambridge four years ago from the Dominican Republic. She has two children. She’s a waitress; her husband is a cook. She was hesitant to visit a pantry upon arriving in the United States.
“When we came, we were very reluctant. We were afraid: OK, that’s not for us. But there shouldn’t be a fear to sign up,” she says.
Her family’s hours — and pay — have been diminished by the pandemic, and now pantries are a lifeline for her family. She makes about $60 per shift, a small percentage of her prior income. Her husband’s monthly pay has dwindled to $1800, but their rent is $1700.
“If we buy food for one week, we spend $300,” Cuello says. “When I go to the food pantry, I don’t have to spend that money. It means I can pay my rent.”
Most pantries have pre-set hours, though, and sometimes families need food quickly — especially now, when issues like sudden quarantining could keep them housebound.
FabiYana’s Urgent Foods provides emergency groceries for people who require urgent help within 48 hours, many of whom have COVID-19 and are unable to buy necessities.
Fabian and Yana Weinstein-Jones launched the organization in May from their Watertown home; both have full-time jobs and do this on the side, with volunteer help. At first, they used their own funds for grocery runs, supplementing with money from a Facebook fundraiser. Their four children help them pack deliveries. They pride themselves on finding culturally appropriate food on request, from tortillas and black beans to plantains. They serve up to 70 households per week, without income restrictions.
Both know the pain of hunger.
“My parents grew up very poor in Jamaica, and one thing my mom wanted for us was never to be hungry,” says Fabian.
Yana grew up in the USSR.
“There were food rations. I remember my grandfather used to go stand in line for many hours to get the ration of yogurt and dairy products,” she says.
Now, there’s a disquieting echo of those days.
“You’re not alone. There’s no shame,” she says.
Especially not now, when the pandemic has reinforced our shared humanity — and fragility.
“Everybody either has been there or is just a couple of paychecks away from being there,” says Dorchester’s Carl Baty. He was once homeless and visited soup kitchens. Now he works with Rounding the Bases, a Boston nonprofit that distributes food to people in need. He urges his community to reach out for help like he once did.
“A closed mouth doesn’t get fed,” he says.
Need help? Consider these resources:
FabiYana collaborates with social services agencies and public health workers to deliver urgent food and necessities within 48 hours.
Food For Free
Find national and local directories, food delivery information, and more.
The Greater Boston Food Bank
The GBFB serves many pantries throughout the Boston area and maintains a directory of food-assistance partners statewide.
Massachusetts COVID-19 Updates and Information
Get information about supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP), the Women, Infants & Children Nutrition Program (WIC), and more on Massachusetts’ government website.
The USDA’s National Hunger Hotline is open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m.: 866-348-6479; 877-842-6273 (Spanish)
Visit for COVID-19 resources, information about pantries, WIC, SNAP, and a hotline for counseling.