Anti-Hunger Network Struggles to Meet Growing Need for Healthy Food

Noelle Swan
Spare Change News

Nearly one in every 20 households in Massachusetts reported cutting back on the size and frequency of meals from 2008 to 2010, because they could not afford food, according to recent data from the USDA Economic Research Service.

This figure represents only half the picture of hunger in Massachusetts, counting only those that the USDA categorizes as “very low food security.” Just as many households reported having to sacrifice nutrition in order to avoid going hungry.

“These are families where folks are not exactly hungry, but they are relying on cereal or rice and beans for the
last week of the month,” says Sarah Cluggish, director of programs at Project Bread, a Boston-based organization that coordinates anti-hunger services and programs throughout the state.

An extensive network of hunger relief organizations throughout the state struggles to ensure that every family has not just food, but healthy food.

The largest of these organizations, The Greater Boston Food Bank, serves as an umbrella, distributing free food to community, school, and religious organizations operating food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, residential programs, youth centers, and senior centers around the state.

President and CEO Catherine D’Amato says that GBFB staff pay close attention to the nutritional value of food distributed. “We are intentional in everything that we buy, and conscious of what we take in donations.”

The 117,000-square-foot GBFB distribution center in the South End has a series of coolers and freezers stacked two stories high with pallets of carrots, onions, potatoes, squash, milk, yogurt, meat, and eggs. Canned tomato sauce, boxed pasta, chips, rise up over 77,000 square feet of warehouse space. Manufacturers donate many of these shelf-stable items.

The Greater Boston Food Bank relies on donations for half of the food that it distributes. D’Amato says the food bank will not turn away donations, though staff may limit the number of pallets of certain snack foods they accept. With so many in need, it becomes difficult to turn down food that could potentially fill a hungry belly, even if it is not the best choice nutritionally.

While local food pantries heavily rely on food provided by GBFB, many are looking for additional ways to boost the overall nutritional value of their offerings.

Sarah Borgeson runs a weekly food pantry at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Dorchester. While she applauds The Greater Boston Food Bank for supplying more produce, she points out that what they do supply tends to be starchy, root vegetables that last in cool storage. She has been looking for ways to expand those offerings to include fresh, local produce. Last year, St. Mary’s was one of three food pantries to receive surplus produce from community gardeners collected by the Produce to Pantries program run by the Boston Natural Areas
Network. She attends Farmers’ Market Association meetings to reach out to individual growers.

The Centre Street Food Pantry in Newton also struggles to supplement GBFB produce with locally grown vegetables. A local grocery store sells the pantry produce at cost. Board member Ginny Fruhan says that staff at the pantry has been working on connection with a local farmers market in hopes of securing donations of leftover produce. Occasionally home gardeners drop off a surplus from their backyard garden.

Pantries like the Centre Street Food Pantry and St. Mary’s Food Pantry can only supply a small portion of a household’s monthly needs. Demand is so high that pantry staff limits clients to just one visit per month. One woman at St. Mary’s says that she visits as many as six food pantries each month to feed her family of five.

Borgeson says that many rely on Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits, formerly known as food stamps, to purchase what they need. A survey of St. Mary’s clients revealed that many live in the immediate area of Upham’s Corner where there is no access to major supermarkets.

“If you’ re low income and you’ re living without transportation in the heart of the city, you’re really relying on
your local corner store or bodega,” says Borgeson. She added that while some clients reported using public transportation to get to a major chain, they still skipped the produce sections because of expense. This spring
she hopes to focus on informing clients about the Bounty Bucks program providing SNAP participants a 50 percent discount at Boston-area farmers markets.

The Centre Street Food Pantry in Newton is located in a very different neighborhood. Fruhan says that while many of the pantry’s clients do not qualify for food stamps, they still struggle to put food on the table.

Cluggish says that Project Bread has seen the number of individuals seeking out food pantries for the first time. She says that the state’s high cost of living and broad income gap leaves many households unable to put healthy food on the table even though they do not necessarily qualify for assistive services. “More and more calls are coming in from people who weathered the first few years of the economic downturn just fine. But now, their unemployment is running out, their house is being foreclosed on, and they need help putting food on the table.”

NOELLE SWAN is a freelance writer.

PHOTO: GREATER BOSTON FOOD BANK

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