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Survey finds significant food insecurity among Massachusetts families

Produce at the South Street Congregational Church food pantry in Pittsfield, Mass.
Produce at the South Street Congregational Church food pantry in Pittsfield, Mass.Ben Garver/Associated Press

Nearly half of Massachusetts parents polled in a recent survey said their families experienced hunger during the coronavirus pandemic, but many who were eligible for federal assistance didn’t seek it because they weren’t fully informed about the program, according to The MassINC Polling Group.

About 47 percent of those surveyed reported experiencing food insecurity over the past year, but only about 40 percent of that group received benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, commonly known as food stamps, according to a statement from MassINC.

Fewer than half of those making $25,000 a year or less — an income that would most likely allow them to qualify for SNAP — received benefits, according to the survey.

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“The level of need we found shows food insecurity is an ongoing concern even as the worst of the pandemic passes,” said Steve Koczela, president of The MassINC Polling Group, in the statement. “The sheer number of respondents we reached for this poll, over 10,000 households, lets policymakers at the state and local level respond in a very nuanced way.”

The survey was conducted among 10,650 parents and guardians of K-12 students from 14 Massachusetts public school districts: Chelsea, Lawrence, Fall River, Malden, Chicopee, Pittsfield, Everett, North Adams, Brockton, Framingham, Greenfield, Methuen, Attleboro, and Dartmouth. Families received a link to the poll through text or e-mail and could take the survey in six languages.

Respondents who struggled with getting enough food but did not seek SNAP benefits gave varied reasons for not seeking the help they qualified for.

Some did not realize they were eligible — 58 percent of households that did not apply believed they made too much money to qualify. Others did not know how to apply, or incorrectly believed they could not apply for SNAP while also receiving other pandemic-related assistance with food costs.

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And the vast majority of poll respondents who identified as Latino and made less than $25,000 a year — 78 percent — said they had concerns about whether it would affect their immigration status.

“The survey highlights the disheartening reality that programs like SNAP designed to address food insecurity simply are not reaching many eligible families,” said Jill Shah, president of the Shah Family Foundation, which sponsored the MassINC survey. “This data serves as a call-to-action to continue our efforts to increase SNAP participation while at the same time reimagining how we use government funding in more accessible, less restrictive ways to get food to those who need it most.”

The MassINC survey is one of several recent studies showing hunger, a prevalent force in some Massachusetts communities during the early months of pandemic lockdowns, remains an issue even as COVID-19 case counts fall, and that people who need help with food insecurity often struggle to get assistance.

An unrelated study released in May by the Greater Boston Food Bank showed that about 1.6 million adults in the state faced challenges in getting enough to eat, and only about a third of people experiencing food insecurity were using food pantries. And in November, a study by Feeding America showed that Massachusetts had the country’s highest percent increase of residents facing food insecurity — that the hunger rate had increased by 59 percent since 2018 and that one in five children in Massachusetts were living in food-insecure households, an increase of 102 percent.

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In Chelsea, the need at St. Luke’s-San Lucas Episcopal Church’s weekly food pantry has exploded since March 2020, according to the Rev. Edgar A. Gutiérrez-Duarte.

The Saturday food pantry was serving about 90 families a week before the pandemic. That number went up to about 900 families a week in the early months of lockdowns that forced many out of work and children out of school buildings, he said.

By September, about 850 families a week still were seeking assistance at the church’s food pantry, he said. The number has leveled to about 350 a week in the past few months — considerably lower, but still much higher than before lockdowns began.

“Overall, there is a slight decrease in the need. But the need is still out there,” Gutiérrez-Duarte said. We see a great number of families with children, and we haven’t actually seen a significant decrease in that.”

With help from the city of Chelsea, volunteers, and other local organizations, the church tries to give families what they will find useful in their lives: spices, packaged snacks for kids who need to get through the school day, pet food for families with animals, Halal meat for Muslim families who don’t eat pork.

“It’s been really remarkable to see how people pull together,” he said.


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox. Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe.com or at 617-929-2043.