Food pantries rise to the pandemic challenges

Mitchell R. Lajoie

Between cooking meals and making deliveries to combat increasing needs, food banks have had their hands full during the pandemic. But as Massachusetts residents and businesses adjust to accommodate growing vaccination rates and expiring government benefits, so have food pantry services.

Food insecurity reached new highs over the last year, but experts worry the full effects of the issue will come to light even as vaccination rates rise. Western Massachusetts saw an approximately 47% increase in hunger over the pandemic with the greatest impact on children, according to Feeding America. A growing number of visits to food pantries and use of government services, including SNAP benefits, reflected the increase in Berkshire County.

“During COVID, we saw a lot more people who had never used our services and had never needed support, ever,” said Lillian Baulding, communications and engagement officer at Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.

While food pantries welcomed growing numbers of consumers with bags of food and sanitizer, government benefits caused organizations like Al Nelson Friendship Center Food Pantry to begin serving fewer people.

“At first with the pandemic, usage went up quite a bit,” said Mark Rondeau, board president of the North Adams center. “Then people started getting federal benefits.”

And with federal benefits provided by the CARES Act ending in September, pantries anticipate yet another uptick in visitors.

“We expect since the federal benefits have expired that we will see more people,” Baulding said.

However, ARPA funding will continue to benefit the facilities. On Oct. 14, Boston Acting Mayor Kim Janey and the Mayor’s Office of Food Access announced $2.2 million in grant funding will go to 39 local non-profit organizations to fight food insecurity.

“The pandemic has highlighted the disparities that exist in our city, including food insecurity,” said Janey. “I am proud to award this funding to local nonprofits already making an impact in our communities, and I know this will help their work to make Boston a more equitable city for all our residents.”

Food pantries in the Greater Boston area currently distribute enough food to provide three meals a day to every food-insecure individual, according to the Greater Boston Food Bank.

Despite the expected surge in users since emergency government aid reached its end, volunteers say they expect no shortage in supply of food or staff.

Many organizations expanded existing relationships with local farms to bring in as much food as possible, including Berkshire Grown. The organization connects local farms with the community, and its new Farm-to-Food access program started at the beginning of the pandemic received money from state and federal funding to support food pantries.

“The farmers benefit because we’re scheduling in advance large purchasing quantities at low price and the pantries are benefiting because they’re getting nutrient-dense food,” said Berkshire Grown executive director Margaret Moulton. “This was a need that felt really like the right thing to do, and I still think it is.”

Older volunteers – who once stayed home to avoid contracting COVID-19 – have come back to food pantries to assist with the expected growth in consumers. As vaccination rates rise in Massachusetts, volunteers feel safer against the virus.

“At the beginning, the older volunteers stepped back, and younger people came forward,” Rondeau said.

While average daily cases have decreased since the beginning of 2021 and volunteers have returned to work, many food pantries – including Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, Al Nelson Friendship Center and Berkshire Food Project – have no set date to return to pre-COVID measures. Since the beginning of the pandemic, many locations have switched from dine-in to takeout only, with volunteers taking safety precautions.

“Since COVID hit, we require that people wear masks in line, volunteers wear masks,” said Baulding. “We have cones six feet apart in line so that people stand six feet apart from one another.”

In Boston, the Greater Boston Food Bank has also followed the same protocols since the beginning of the pandemic.

Although many pantries have not declared a date to fully reopen, volunteers remain optimistic about food service in the coming months.

“We can breathe,” said Moulton. “Now let’s think forward.”

Madeleine Pearce writes for the Gazette from the Boston University Statehouse Program.

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