Walk for Hunger raises money to address a crisis worsened by the pandemic

Kevin Neil (center), a chaplain with the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, walked in support of the Walk for Hunger fund-raiser with a group of people experiencing housing insecurity and homelessness. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

With food insecurity elevated in Massachusetts due to the pandemic, the annual Walk for Hunger raised more than $1 million as the event took place virtually again this year, according to organizers.

“Right now, we are facing one of the worst hunger crises in the country, right here in Massachusetts,” Attorney General Maura Healey said in a video message during the event, which involved fund-raisers walking through their neighborhoods and livestreamed remarks.

“People in every community across our state are going hungry,” Healey said. “It could be your neighbor’s family members or friends. This crisis is real.”

About 20 percent of families with children — and nearly a third of Black and Latino families — are food insecure, meaning they lack consistent access to affordable and nutritious meals, according to Project Bread, which runs the walk.

“The scale of the crisis is immense,” said Erin McAleer, the organization’s president and CEO, in a phone interview.

“The numbers speak for themselves but what we hear on the phone every day is people who have never been in this crisis before,” she said, noting how the pandemic brought job losses and reduced hours for many.

One of the main challenges, especially with people new to food insecurity, is connecting people to the services they need, according to McAleer, something that she said has become a new focus for Project Bread.

On Sunday, about 1,500 people walked to raise money for the event, similar to last year’s virtual event, but significantly fewer than in a typical year, McAleer.

Among them was Saadia Ali, 22, of Cambridge, who is considered the top all-time fund-raiser, having raised about $200,000 in the eight years she has been walking.

“My feet hurt; my hips are a little sore,” she said by phone during the final stretch of her 20-mile walk on the Minuteman Commuter Bikeway, from Cambridge to Bedford and back.

Ali said her older sister’s death in 2012 made her think more deeply about her role in the world and said food access is a fundamental need. The fact that people go hungry in one of the richest states of the richest country is an “outrage,” she said.

“Even before the pandemic I think the rates of hunger were pretty embarrassing for a state like Massachusetts,” said Ali, who is attending Boston University’s law school in the fall.

Accompanied on part of her journey by friend Jonas Vandebroek (left), Saadia Ali walked along the Minuteman Commuter Bikeway in Bedford. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

For one group of walkers on Sunday, the event is their opportunity to give back to a program that helps support them.

“There was so much desire from our folks to do something,” this year, said Kevin Neil, 26, chaplain of MANNA, a community organization of people experiencing homelessness or unstable housing based at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul across from Boston Common.

For at least the past six years — with the exception of last year, when the virus was tearing through the community — the group has raised money and walked as part of the event.

The past year, he said in a phone interview, has “been really demoralizing for our folks,” as the dearth of public bathrooms went unaddressed and the pandemic impacted other services.

Still, Neil said, “They’ve benefited and relied on these [food[ programs around the city. They’re wanting to give back and feel like it’s not a relationship just of receiving, but a feeling of reciprocity to that.”

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