A year of increased food insecurity

Fresh fruits and vegetables, donated by local grocery stores and farmers, sits on a table at Lifeboat food pantry before sorting and distribution. Photo by Hannah Edelman/BU News Service

By Justin Schmithorst
Boston University News Service

BOSTON — Foodbank and pantry services are still in high demand as the pandemic continues to drive up food insecurity throughout Boston, according to support staff.

Prior to the pandemic, 1 in 13 people were food insecure in the greater Boston area and eastern Massachusetts, according to Greater Boston Food Bank (GBFB) Senior Public Relations Director Gary Roy. Now, it’s 1 in 8.

“In 2019, the last full year without a pandemic, we had distributed 65 million pounds of food,” Roy said. “In the 11 months of the pandemic, we distributed over 103 million pounds of food. We’re going to get over 110 [million pounds] for the year.”

With the GBFB serving 190 cities and towns with nearly 600 distribution partners, Roy said that since the pandemic started, the state has seen “the largest [food insecurity] increase in the country, percentage-wise.”

“Massachusetts is not the most food insecure state [in general],” Roy said. “[But] the pandemic has made food insecurity jump 59%.”

As the GBFB works to meet their partners’ needs, thousands of pounds of food are transported each week to meet the demand at each pantry’s respective community. For Arielle Chernin, operations director of the Brookline Food Pantry, her facility continues to serve five times the normal number of clientele. 

“The Brookline Food Pantry pre-pandemic was a pretty small operation,” Chernin said. “[The food pantry] saw about 150 clients a week; now, for reference, we feed over 750 a week.”

Pantry workers pick up an average of over 20,000 pounds of supplies biweekly. Prior to the pandemic, Chernin said the staff was making the trip only once a week, collecting around 5,000 pounds of food.

Saadia Baloch, a board member at the Centre Street Food Pantry in Newton, said she had seen a similar surge in demand. Prior to the pandemic, her pantry saw an average of about 75 families a week, but as COVID-19 spread at the end of March 2020, that number increased at a drastic rate.

“[On Feb. 23], we surpassed our record for families served in a week, with 260 [families served],” Baloch said.

Baloch’s pantry also experienced a similar increase in food demand, rising from 27,000 pounds of food in January 2020 to 63,000 pounds by December. 

Roy said one of the driving factors for the sharp increase was partly due to high unemployment levels and the state “shutting down” in 2020.

“Our state has never seen the high levels of unemployment we had [that] summer,” Roy said.

With so many households living paycheck-to-paycheck and relying on low wages, the current situation was bound to happen, according to Will Masters, a Tufts University economic professor.

“The job losses were really at the bottom rungs of the ladder,” Masters said. “It’s like we have Europe and Scandinavia in some parts of the country, and then we have much-lower income [areas] at the same time [in the United States].” 

Both Chernin and Roy agreed that raising the minimum wage will mitigate food insecurity in future pandemics. The latest COVID-19 relief bill under consideration would have laid the groundwork for such a raise. However, it was stripped during a ruling in the U.S. Senate.

The bill includes $880 million for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, also known as “WIC,” in addition to direct payments of up to $1,400 for most Americans, depending on income. The relief package passed the Senate on Saturday is headed to the House for final approvals.

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