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Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Lazarus House Ministries was providing free groceries and nutritious, prepared meals each month to 8,000 people in need from its storefront pantry and nearby soup kitchen in Lawrence.

As of October, the faith-based nonprofit provided its food assistance to 36,700 people, a more than four-fold increase over March 2020. And there is no sign that demand is waning.

“This is the largest increase in food insecurity we’ve seen in our 38 years as an organization,” said Danielle Tjalsma, Lazarus House’s director of communications. “It is staggering, it’s sad. We are seeing brand new faces coming into both our soup kitchen and our food pantry.”

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Despite the easing of the pandemic, and the recovering economy, hunger remains a real and ever-present reality for many in the region, according to some on the front lines of addressing the problem.

When the pandemic struck, food assistance programs pivoted to different service models: soup kitchens moved to distributing prepackaged meals, and pantries to distributing prebagged groceries. Many of those workarounds continue, but one constant has been the heightened need.

“The enhanced government supports people were getting during the pandemic are slowly going away and people are starting to feel that,” said Almarie Silverman, director of advocacy for Lazarus House. “There’s just that insecurity of ‘What am I going to do when this runs out and I’m barely making it.’ "

Pre-pandemic, Maynard-based Open Table was serving 150 people weekly at its community dining program. Now it is providing 800 prepared meals. In addition, the number of people receiving free groceries has risen from 200 to 290.

“Housing is so expensive, evictions are happening, inflation, continuing unemployment, mental health issues, they’re all contributing to food insecurity,” said Jeanine Calabria, Open Table’s executive director.

Justin Flores provides a smiling face as he passes out food to guests at St. Martha’s Food Pantry in Lawrence.
Justin Flores provides a smiling face as he passes out food to guests at St. Martha’s Food Pantry in Lawrence.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Kristen Schlapp, chief operating officer of Quincy Community Action Programs, estimates her agency served 4,700 people at its Quincy pantry in its 2021 fiscal year ending Oct.1. That number is down from the 5,100 served in 2020, but still well above the 3,500 figure for 2019.

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“The height of the pandemic was so extreme — people were losing their jobs, they had no income, nowhere to go,” Schlapp said. “That caused a crazy spike in need. Now we are seeing a longer-term effect where people are going back to work but may not be working full time — they might be getting paychecks but it’s still not enough.”

She said the continuing need is most pronounced for people of color, who this year comprised 60 percent of her agency’s clients, up from 54 percent before the pandemic.

“The economy is recovering to some extent but the folks that were most vulnerable are still vulnerable,” Schlapp said. “It’s going to take them longer to climb the economic ladder, and in the meantime, they still need to eat.”

Jonathan Tetrault, vice president of community impact for the Greater Boston Food Bank, said the pandemic brought “an astronomical, historic need” for food assistance. “We have seen some positive signs the past few months that the need for food is improving, but it’s improving at a much slower rate than the topic is exiting from headlines,” he said.

The Greater Boston Food Bank supplies about 600 pantries, soup kitchens, and other meals programs in 190 Eastern Massachusetts communities. Since mid-2020, those organizations have been collectively serving over 600,000 people per month, about double the amount before the pandemic.

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“Hunger is a pervasive epidemic in every community,” Tetrault said, predicting that as was the case after the 2008 recession, the elevated need for food assistance is likely to persist for years.

Tetrault said the Food Bank has experienced delivery delays and price increases due to the supply chain problems affecting the national economy. So far, he said, the Food Bank has successfully addressed both issues without affecting services, but it is seeking community support through its holiday fund drive to meet ongoing expenses.

“We are really focused on our fundraising right now to allow us to continue to supply products to those relying on them,” he said.

Liset Garcia, who as food services coordinator oversees Lazarus House’s pantry, believes “the fear of not having food at home” helps explain the rising demand for assistance. After experiencing the food shortages during COVID, people worry “what if this hits again, or something else, God forbid,” she said.

A guest is handed a bag of personal care items at Lazarus House Ministries in Lawrence.
A guest is handed a bag of personal care items at Lazarus House Ministries in Lawrence. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Debbie Stettler, a preschool teacher who lives in Quincy with her 13-year-old son, has been visiting the Quincy CAP pantry for the past seven years.

“It’s very important. It helps me get through the month with groceries — it helps me put food on the table for my son and I,” she said.

Stettler said her job income — and a small Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit she receives monthly — are not enough to cover her bills. “Every house needs two working incomes these days. One person’s salary does not cut it anymore.”

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One in eight Massachusetts households was experiencing food insecurity in July, down from one in six in December 2020 but still above one in 11 before the pandemic, according to Project Bread. Similarly, one in six households with children were food insecure in July, down from one in five last December but well above one in 10 pre-pandemic.

Project Bread CEO Erin McAleer said communities of color are feeling the brunt of the problem. About 25 percent of Black households with children and 24 percent of Latino households with children were insecure as of July.

“As we hopefully start to lean into a recovery, we have to make sure it’s a recovery for all, an equitable recovery,” said McAleer, whose organization connects people to food assistance, advocates for anti-hunger measures, and provides funding to local organizations providing food assistance.

McAleer said the most essential tool in fighting food insecurity is maintaining robust federal and state benefit programs.

“SNAP has been the number one anti-hunger program for feeding people during this crisis — over 950,000 people are currently receiving it in Massachusetts,” she said. “The second is school meals, which was the number one source of free food.”

Local food assistance organizations “played such an incredible role through the pandemic and are true heroes,” McAleer said. “But they are not meant to serve people on a regular basis on that scale. It requires other solutions.”

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From the outset of the pandemic, pantries and soup kitchens have faced the daunting task of serving people safely at a time of spiraling need, coupled with such difficulties as absorbing losses in volunteers and staff.

Tetrault, of the Greater Boston Food Bank, said the programs have responded well to that challenge. “They have very much understood the critical role they play in their communities and stepped up in fantastic ways,” he said.

Some local managers said their innovations that sprung from the crisis could have long-lasting benefits.

Since the pandemic, Open Table’s pantry has provided prebagged groceries that clients pick up by appointment at its Maynard site. Its community meals program, which had operated in Maynard and Concord, has shifted to providing frozen prepared meals for pickup. Open Table also has begun partnering with local groups to offer mobile pantries and meal deliveries.

“This is a huge change for us as an organization,” Calabria said, noting that while prompted by the pandemic, the changes could become permanent.

“We decided given our mission of ending hunger, frozen meals helped that more than community dinners,” she said. “The community dinner addresses social isolation, while one healthy meal a week gathering with other people doesn’t really address hunger.

“We are trying to make it as simple as possible to get food without any barriers,” she added.

Dr. Nancy Hendrie, 90 a retired pediatrician from Emerson Hospital and volunteer at the Open Table in Maynard, fills a custom shopping bag for a family in need.
Dr. Nancy Hendrie, 90 a retired pediatrician from Emerson Hospital and volunteer at the Open Table in Maynard, fills a custom shopping bag for a family in need. Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

Quincy Community Action Programs shifted to handing out prebagged groceries during the pandemic, but also initiated a food delivery program it expects to continue.

“It’s one of those programs we see an ongoing need for — serving folks who have limited access to our pantry whether they are homebound seniors or just don’t have transportation,” Schlapp said.

Additionally, QCAP initiated a pop-up mobile pantry program through a state grant that funded the purchase of a refrigerated van.

Since the pandemic began, Lazarus House’s St. Martha’s Food Pantry has been providing guests with prebagged groceries. Guests of its Good Shepherd soup kitchen receive meals to go — currently cold dishes while the kitchen and dining area undergo renovations to expand capacity and enhance the nutrition quality of meals.

While it hopes to return to in-person meals next spring, Silverman said Lazarus House may offer a permanent to-go window for guests who for safety or other reasons prefer that option.

“You don’t have to be embarrassed to go and get help,” said Stettler, in what she hopes will be a lesson of the pandemic. “Even people who earn a salary may need help and they shouldn’t feel ashamed to ask for it.”

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.

FACTS ON FOOD PROGRAMS: HOW TO GIVE, RECEIVE HELP

Lazarus House Ministries

St. Martha’s Food Pantry, 242 Hampshire St., and Good Shepherd Soup Kitchen, 412 Hampshire St., Lawrence, MA

  • What is needed: Foods, volunteers, and financial donations.
  • How to give: Go to lazarushouse.org. Click on “Ways to Give” for food or monetary donations. Click on “Get Involved” to volunteer. Or for either, contact Danielle Tjalsma, director of communications, at Danielle@lazarushouse.org.
  • If you need food: Contact Liset Garcia, food coordinator, at 978-332-5013 or liset@lazarushouse.org.

Open Table

Pantry and meals programs, 33 Main St., Maynard, MA

Quincy Community Action Programs

Pantry, 1 Copeland St., Quincy, MA

  • What is needed: Financial donations, food.
  • How to donate: To donate funds, go to qcap.org or call 617-479-8181. To donate food, call 617-471-0796.
  • If you need food: Call 617-471-0796.

Greater Boston Food Bank

To donate to the food bank’s current fund-raising campaign, go to gbfb.org/holidays.

To find local hunger-relief agencies and other resources, go to gbfb.org/needfood.

Project Bread

To support Project Bread’s COVID-19 relief and year-round anti-hunger efforts, go to projectbread.org/donate, or text the word “Hunger” to 243725.

For help in locating food assistance, go to projectbread.org/get-help or call Project Bread’s FoodSource hotline, 1-800-645-8333, which provides confidential assistance in 180 languages and for the hearing impaired.

 Guests receive items from St. Martha’s Food Pantry of Lazarus House Ministries in Lawrence.
Guests receive items from St. Martha’s Food Pantry of Lazarus House Ministries in Lawrence. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff