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As food insecurity in Massachusetts hits an unprecedented level, with more than 1 million people now struggling to afford meals, Erin McAleer has been relentless in her efforts to keep people fed. The president of Project Bread leads an organization serving a spectrum of need: Its FoodSource Hotline directs people to food banks and federal benefits to get them the food they need now; meanwhile, its government affairs team continually pushes for public policy changes to address the root causes of hunger to build a better future.
McAleer took the reins of the organization in 2017, just before its 50th Walk for Hunger fund-raiser, and quickly set out to diversify its board and change the conversation about food insecurity. She often does so by sharing her own real-life experiences of growing up with a single mom who worried about having enough money to feed her kids. “I feel like Erin in particular speaks to the policy work really well. At the same time she is very much grounded in what the lived experience of food insecurity is,” says Irene Li, a Project Bread board member who owns Mei Mei restaurant. (Li herself has helped lead multiple efforts to provide groceries to immigrant families, front-line hospital staff, and others.) McAleer’s work, Li adds, is driven by an imperative to destigmatize hunger and question the structures that allow it to happen in the first place.
“She understands that hunger isn’t a personal failing, it’s a policy failure and a public health issue,” says Kate Audette, the director of government affairs for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and a Project Bread board member. Before joining Project Bread, McAleer was tasked by then-Governor Deval Patrick with overhauling the beleaguered Department of Children and Families. “You drop her in the midst of a crisis and she just thrives,” Audette says.
Indeed, in the early overwhelming days of the pandemic, McAleer’s job was to focus on the most vulnerable populations. Because an estimated 1 in 5 children now lives in a food insecure household, the organization partnered with school districts throughout the state to create 1,600 pop-up meal sites, which served 5 million meals in May to Massachusetts students — many of whom get half their daily calories in school. Project Bread then supported 800 of those meal sites through the summer. Its FoodSource Hotline, a low-tech option for getting information to those in crisis — ”the digital divide is real,” McAleer says — has seen a four-fold increase in calls over the past several months. The organization has doubled the number of people it employs to answer questions, which it can handle in 180 languages.
Project Bread connects people in need to local food pantries, which in turn are working to serve skyrocketing need. The Greater Boston Food Bank and its partners, for example, during the pandemic distributed more than 98 million pounds of food during the pandemic. But it also takes some of the pressure off food pantries by helping people access SNAP and WIC. “The food pantry is meant to fill the gaps, but they can’t be the primary source of food,” McAleer says. “Massachusetts has 5,000 retail establishments that accept SNAP. We don’t need to build a new infrastructure there.”
The need exacerbated by the pandemic has also accelerated Project Bread’s push into new arenas. It’s now working directly with community health centers in Boston to train staff in the SNAP program, so they can encourage patients to apply for benefits. Project Bread is planning to take that program statewide. Meanwhile, Project Bread helped get a bill quickly passed in the State House to make breakfast part of the school day, helping to feed to as many as 150,000 more students around the state.
McAleer’s approach to hunger also means collaborating with other efforts to combat it. After reading in the Globe about an effort to set up refrigerators with free food in communities, McAleer e-mailed this reporter asking how she could connect with people behind the work. She wanted to ensure that anyone grabbing a gallon of milk knew the FoodSource Hotline was there for them, too. “It’s very much to Erin’s credit that she wants to build relationships with these more grass-roots projects,” Li says.
Project Bread has brought on 13 new staffers, expanding the team in East Boston to 44. Audette says that McAleer meets her staff where they are and makes them feel supported even during a crisis. “She took what was a really stable, high-performing organization,” Audette says, “and was able to make sure it was prepared to rise to [an] occasion like COVID.”