As the Globe reported on Tuesday, we’re in the midst of a hunger crisis. As summer approaches, it’s even worse: Many kids rely on schools for their meals and snacks. (In Massachusetts, school meals were free this year.) Once vacation arrives, they lack that structure.
According to a report released this week from the Greater Boston Food Bank, one in three adults in Massachusetts experienced limited or uncertain access to adequate food in 2022. More than a third of households said a child in their family has skipped a meal — or several — in the past 12 months due to lack of food.
I know; I know: I write about restaurants. Last week’s column was all about where to find delicious dining with your kids. In a culture where food is celebrated — and where influencers can enchant millions on TikTok by lighting cheese on fire or finding new ways to make marshmallow pizzas — it’s easy to assume we’re all just hoovering tater tots and begging our children to eat one more frozen taquito after soccer. But it’s not true.
Hunger is often invisible, in part because many people who are food insecure feel ashamed to get help. When I’m not on the hunt for the best tacos or dim sum, I work with Arlington EATS, Arlington’s food insecurity organization, and we’re always talking about ways to fight stigma: Many of our neighbors think that food pantries aren’t for people like them. They think they’re reserved for people who are acutely suffering, not just quietly stretched. But you’d be surprised at how common food insecurity really is, says Lisa Gordon, executive director of the Acton Food Pantry. Hunger isn’t necessarily a physical feeling. It’s about stress, anxiety, wondering which bill to pay next.
“We do not know what is going on in our neighbor’s houses,” Gordon says. Sometimes, one bad break — a surprise divorce, a job loss, a health issue — can throw a family into crisis.
“All of a sudden, finances are not what they used to be. Maybe you’re still living in the nice house and driving the same car … but you have to start making choices. And so you find yourself in the grocery store where things are very expensive, where a bag of groceries that used to cost you $60 is now costing you $120. You cannot manufacture money out of nowhere. Especially if you have children, that’s a lot of groceries,” she says.
One thing I think about a lot as a mom is how to make sure my kids see beyond their bubble. They’re not spoiled jerks, but they are children who have trouble envisioning a world beyond their triangulation of sports, video games, and endless bags of Takis. Food drives are a straightforward, active way to get kids involved in fighting hunger. And food pantries absolutely love and rely on them for donations.
“Not enough food drives happen,” Gordon says.
Well-meaning people often only think about donating food over the holidays, or when they need to clean out their cabinets. (Please don’t donate expired food; if you wouldn’t eat it, why would someone else?) However, drives sustain pantries in very important ways: They’re a helpful method of getting niche and specialty foods, and they’re effective at spreading awareness about food insecurity. (My hometown organization, EATS, relies on donations for about 30 percent of its food supply.) I’m planning to organize one with my kids as soon as school gets out. Here’s how.
1. Ask your kids to pick a theme. Pantries frequently need specialty items, says Gordon. Consider gluten-free foods, spices, or allergy-friendly staples (think: milk or peanut butter alternatives, such as sun butter.) Do your kids love breakfast foods? Do a breakfast drive, with cereals and granola bars. Love baking? Put together donations with necessities like flour, sugar, and oils. When in doubt, ask your local pantry what they really need.
2. Get creative. Pantries also offer way more than food. Many of them need things like diapers and toiletries.
3. Combine your drive with an event. Is your neighborhood having a block party? Are your kids about to hit the playoffs in baseball? Time your drive to something that’s already happening for easy community drop-offs. Have your kids make posters, text their friends, or advertise however they see creatively fit.
4. Make it super-simple for people to donate from home. If there’s not an upcoming event (I’m envious), ask your neighbors to leave donations in paper bags on their porch — and have your kids pick everything up. Remember walking outside? Shoo, shoo!
5. Ask your pantry when drop-off hours are. Most pantries offer timed drop-offs or even donation bins, so you can drop at your convenience. Easy!
A few things to keep in mind: Don’t donate sample sizes. Don’t donate stuff like soda or sports drinks. Perishables are also risky; stick to items that are shelf-stable.
“When you donate, you are quite literally feeding your community. You’re really taking a huge step that you may not realize. It’s going to change somebody’s life, especially children,” Gordon says. And you just might change your own kids’ outlook, too.