Although COVID-19 has eased, the heightened need for food assistance that it spawned is showing few signs of abating, according to leaders of some local and regional food aid programs and area organizations.
With Thanksgiving approaching, many food programs are highlighting that elevated need as they enlist community members in helping ease the struggles many families face in trying to afford the holiday meal.
“This time of year is always more challenging, when people are preparing for Thanksgiving at a time when they face other additional expenses such as heating their homes,” said Laura Striese, executive director at the Charity Guild Food Pantry in Brockton. “We are hoping our programs will help alleviate that stress, and that community members will also lend a hand.”
When COVID-19 struck in March 2020, the number of people served by the guild food pantry nearly doubled. That need has not waned.
Before the pandemic, the nonprofit was providing free fruit, vegetables, bread, and other foods each month to about 530 local families. That number climbed to about 1,000 when the health crisis began and has remained constant. So, too, has the increased volume of food the pantry distributes — currently 7,500 pounds a week compared to 3,000-4,000 pounds pre-pandemic.
“We experienced such a significant increase in clients and that hasn’t stopped,” said Striese. “The financial impact the community has experienced from the pandemic continues to significantly affect the day-to-day lives of people.”
Because of the growth in demand for food, the guild lacks space to undertake its usual holiday can drive this year. But the group is mounting a “coin and dollar drive,” with proceeds going toward distributing stuffing, potatoes, cranberry sauce, and other Thanksgiving favorites. With limited cold storage, it cannot provide turkeys.
The Open Door, which operates food pantries and meals programs in Gloucester and Ipswich, is offering its annual program that invites community members to donate $35 to purchase a basket filled with a turkey and all the trimmings, which the pantry then distributes to a local family for Thanksgiving.
“This is the time of year when we stop and give thanks, and we are hoping that with the large need we are seeing that community members will step up even more this year,” said Julie LaFontaine, Open Door’s president and CEO.
“Food insecurity is still very much a reality for our neighbors in every community in Eastern Massachusetts,” said Jonathan Tetrault, vice president of community impact for the Greater Boston Food Bank, which supplies about 600 pantries and other programs in 190 communities.
Before the pandemic, those groups were collectively serving about 300,000 people monthly. By mid-2020, the number had doubled to 600,000 and it has remained at about that level since, according to Tetrault.
His organization provided those groups with 108 million pounds of food in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, about the same as last year. In fiscal 2019, it supplied 68 million pounds.The majority of the food the bank provides those local programs is free — the rest it sells to them at a significant discount.
“The economy and inflation are really hitting people hard, the increases in the cost of food and the rising cost of fuel, especially as we head into the winter months. All that contributes to keeping the numbers elevated,” Tetrault said of food assistance.
A statewide survey conducted by the Greater Boston Food Bank estimated 32 percent of Massachusetts adults experienced food insecurity in fiscal 2021. Rates were highest among Latino adults, at 61 percent, and Black adults, at 53 percent, along with adults identifying as LBGTQ, at 51 percent, and adults living in households with children, 40 percent.
“This past year we’ve really gone through a lot of food,” said Karen Boyce, chair of St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry of Lincoln and Weston.
In October, the organization served 266 people at its converted garage building behind St. Joseph Church in Lincoln. That figure was well above the 146 clients it served in October 2019 before the pandemic, and higher than the 252 it served in October 2021.
“A lot of people who expected to go back to work after the pandemic found that their jobs had been downsized or eliminated,” Boyce said. “That includes educated and professional people — we even have clients who are attorneys, physicians, and former CEOs — people you wouldn’t expect to be struggling.”
“Making sure people have food to put on the table is not an issue that’s gone away,” said LaFontaine of The Open Door, “and it’s one that people will be dealing with as we head into the winter with higher heating and electricity costs and the rising price of food.”
The Open Door’s client visits soared from 50,802 in 2019 to 64,760 in 2020. That number fell to 43,792 in 2021 “as people had extra support from the government,” LaFontaine said. “But beginning in 2022 we saw an immediate increase in our client visits as gas and food prices started to climb.” The group now projects its 2022 visits will exceed pre-pandemic levels.
Drawing from monthly US Census Bureau data, Project Bread estimates that since late 2020, 1 in 6 households and 1 in 5 households with children in Massachusetts are food insecure. Pre-pandemic, 1 in 11 households and 1 in 10 with children were in those categories, according to the census.
“Unfortunately we are still very much in a crisis,” said Erin McAleer, CEO of Project Bread, which connects people to food assistance.
McAleer said the robust government aid provided during the height of the pandemic — including expanded unemployment and child care tax credits — helped ease food insecurity for a time, but since those programs expired and prices began rising, it has steadily worsened,
In another indicator of high food insecurity, more than a million Massachusetts residents are receiving federal benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, compared with 786,000 in February 2020, according to McAleer, whose organization helps eligible families to enroll in the program.
Local pantry operators say that while SNAP benefits are crucial to fighting hunger, they alone cannot solve the problem.
“With the high cost of groceries, many need both SNAP benefits and assistance from a food pantry to make sure their families are fed,” LaFontaine of The Open Door said.
Boyce said her pantry’s experience underscores how hunger is an issue even in relatively affluent communities like Lincoln and Weston, noting clients include active and retired military families from Hanscom Air Force Base, located primarily within Bedford with portions extending into Lincoln, Concord, and Lexington.
“Gas prices are up, rents are up, everything is up,” she said. “Our clients rely on the food we provide them so it takes that burden off them and they can cover their other expenses.”
Many seeking help see no immediate relief from their financial hardship, Boyce said. “Of all the clients I’ve met this year, not one has said ‘I’m all set and I won’t be coming for awhile.’” But she tries to offer the consolation that with the pantry’s help, “You are never going to worry about food again.”
Pantries and meals programs, meanwhile, are facing their own challenges trying to keep pace with the needs of their clients. Since food banks do not supply all the food those programs need, many rely on donations and grants to fill the gap.
“It takes quite a bit of work to stay on top of things especially when you are seeing so many new clients,” said Striese of the Brockton pantry.
“Agencies are trying to get really creative,” Tetrault of the Greater Boston Food Bank said. “Now that the adrenalin has worn off from the emergency pandemic, they are looking at how to respond long term to the high level of need.” While praising the resilience of those agencies, he added, “the reality is they’re tired. Our emergency food system shouldn’t have to serve 40 percent of Massachusetts families.”
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.