John Ayers has a passion for cooking that’s stuck with him for decades. As a prep cook, he spent his shifts preparing recipes and working with food on a daily basis. But when he lost that job in the midst of the pandemic, food went from being a passion to a steep challenge.
Ayers, 52, says he’s “not getting any younger,” and nutrition and healthy eating are a priority. But it has been difficult for him to afford nutritious ingredients and whole foods. “It started with gas, and now it just hit the food system,” Ayers said. “The milk has gone up, the eggs have gone up. Is it all just going to keep going up?”
Those struggles are echoed by hundreds of thousands of people in Massachusetts and millions more in the United States. With inflation rates rocketing to 9.1 percent, the highest in four decades, shoppers are struggling to make ends meet. A report released in June by the Greater Boston Food Bank estimated that 1.8 million adults in Massachusetts, or 32 percent of the population, experienced food insecurity in 2021 — a 13 percentage point increase from 2019.
Enter Project Bread, a Boston-based nonprofit organization aiming to end food insecurity and connect Massachusetts residents to reliable sources of food.
“It’s a crisis,” said president and CEO Erin McAleer. “Food insecurity is an economic issue and the rising costs of everything, including food, is directly impacting people across Massachusetts — and particularly, the lowest wage earners and the people on fixed incomes.”
Project Bread launched a pilot program in 2020, in collaboration with MassHealth, designed to help eligible patients get enough healthy food. The pilot is part of MassHealth’s Flexible Services program to address social determinants of health. The program offers access to gift cards that can be used at local supermarkets, online cooking classes, basic kitchen equipment, and more to patients diagnosed as “food insecure” through their health care provider.
The program targets people at risk of facing food insecurity, including families, school children, and individuals in low-income households. Participants are eligible to be in the program for up to nine months.
According to a report released by Project Bread in June, the program has reduced food insecurity for some participants. Between November 2020 and October 2021, the nonprofit tracked nearly 500 individuals who completed the program and found that more than a quarter of them reported they were no longer food insecure by the end of the six-month research period.
According to Eric Rimm, a professor, researcher, and epidemiologist at the Harvard University Chan School of Public Health, the intersection of food security and health care presents a unique opportunity for systemic national change.
“This should be something that we treat,” Rimm said. “Because the cost of treatment really is not that great when you think about how much it costs to treat diabetes for the rest of your life, or how much it costs for all the other things that people may go into the health care system for.”
The program has helped over 5,000 participants so far, going beyond simply giving them food. Eight-two percent of participants reported needing better access to kitchen supplies. Ten percent reported a need for transportation to and from the grocery store. Approximately 40 participants reported not having access to a refrigerator.
McAleer is advocating for federal funding to specifically address issues of food insecurity through programs like Medicaid, and sees food insecurity as a clear public health issue in need of resolution.
“We need to do more and move away from this charitable mindset of donating food, or giving people a bag of groceries, and toward ‘how can we systematically address it, and integrate it into the health care system?’” McAleer said.
As for Ayers, Project Bread provided him with $200 in gift cards, various kitchen supplies, and cooking classes that vastly improved his food situation. “I’ve learned how to eat, instead of just going out and getting junk food,” Ayers said. “For me, when I put food in my belly, I feel safe and calm, cool and collected.”
But millions of Americans still lack the resources they need to address food insecurity.
“It’s hard enough to pay a phone bill or an electric bill,” Ayers said. “And then people have to worry about what they are going to eat? It shouldn’t be like that.”