By Emily Pauls, Amanda Bang, Zeinab Diouf, Ponette Kim and Audrey Martin
Boston University News Service
Household food insecurity in Massachusetts rose to 19.6% during the COVID-19 pandemic from an earlier 8.2%, according to Project Bread, a nonprofit organization that works to make food more accessible.
To help combat these statistics, No Kid Hungry, a national organization fighting child hunger, awarded the Massachusetts-based organization a $200,000 grant. Project Bread divided up and distributed the grant to school districts throughout the state.
“We were thrilled with this grant that we received from them and it really is making an enormous difference for these districts,” Sarah Cluggish, the chief program officer at Project Bread, said.
The grant will go toward making the schools’ meal programs better by allowing them to buy new supplies such as utensils and blenders, she said.
“Things that would make production easier for staff,” Cluggish said. “And then we certainly were aiming for districts that serve larger, lower-income communities and populations.”
Salem Public Schools is one of the places the grant was distributed to. Felicia Pinto, the assistant food and nutrition director at Salem Public Schools, said the cost of operation and low staffing is what can really weigh them down.
“There’s a huge staffing crisis in many school districts, we don’t even have the staff to cook the food and send the food out to the kids,” Pinto said.
Being able to provide free meals to all of their students during the pandemic has been a big help for the families in their community, she said.
“It’s very much an inclusive environment and it just feels normal for them to eat breakfast and lunch at school — which is a good thing,” Pinto said. “We don’t want some kids to feel like they’re the only ones who get free lunch and others don’t.”
Due to COVID-19, the state began providing free meals and Project Bread is currently working on getting free meals for every child in the state once that order is over, Cluggish said.
“We are looking to actually pass universal school meals legislation that would allow all children to receive school meals free permanently after the current federal waivers,” Cluggish said.
Despite the number of food-insecure households steadily dropping through the past decade, No Kid Hungry reports that the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the issue once more. The website states that “the coronavirus pandemic dealt a terrible blow to our progress as a nation.”
Households with children were hit particularly hard during the pandemic, reaching up to 23.6% of them being food insecure in Massachusetts, according to Project Bread.
Jessi Rubin, the food access collaborator at Allston-Brighton Health Collaborative, said she wants the state to address the sustainability aspect of providing free meals to every child because of the food waste it creates.
“Not every kid has the same experience with food insecurity,” she said. “Money runs out really quickly with these programs and that’s just wasted food dollars. If not every kid is accessing the meals because they don’t need it, those dollars could be spent elsewhere within the food insecurity realm.”
An aspect Pinto would like to see being worked on is the diversity of culturally relevant food in these programs.
“It was interesting working in Boston through COVID because a lot of families would come to pick up the remote meals but they weren’t necessarily maybe the meals that they wanted,” Pinto said. “I think there’s a lot that could be done around — I don’t know if it’s being more culturally relevant or providing more raw food because they were already cooked, prepared meals so they didn’t have a lot of flexibility with what they could do with them at home.”
Rubin reiterated this sentiment. She said while there have been a few pantries that opened up during the pandemic that focus on this, they are scarce.
“Oftentimes, certain diverse groups can’t even access some of the food that they’re given just because of their simple cultural food needs. If you’re [Muslim], you need Halal meat and foods and certain programs can’t assist with that,” Rubin said.
Creating more culturally diverse meals is something Cluggish said Project Bread is working on.
“We’ve really also started to do a lot over the last few years around cultural diversity in menus,” Cluggish said.
In Boston, there are initiatives from Mayor Michelle Wu to tackle food insecurity as well. On February 24, a press release from the city of Boston announced that Wu has changed Office of Food Access to Office of Food Justice.
“The Office of Food Justice will take an intersectional approach to food security that embeds social, racial, economic, and environmental justice in all of its work. The Mayor’s Office of Food Justice will focus on five pillars to making nutritious, affordable food accessible in Boston,” the press release stated.
Hae-In Kim, the deputy director of planning and development at OFJ, said they are going through a rebranding process.
“We’re really looking to combine urban agriculture work and food access work for a more food-systems approach,” Kim said. “Thinking about, ‘How can we enable growers? How can we support food sovereignty? How do we create economic opportunities for individuals so these kinds of lifestyles can be sustainable?’”
The $200,000 grant also provides residents with connections to resources Boston already has such as food pantries, she said.
“We want to think about the barriers to accessing food pantries and how we could make food pantries a space where it’s easier for folks to access,” Kim said. “Also, connecting those residents with resources outside of the food pantries but using the food pantries as a hub.”
Project Bread has a FoodSource Hotline that anyone can call to be directed to food resources and programs, Cluggish said.
“Our hotline continues to be a resource for tens of thousands of people across the state and we want to make sure that continues to be an accessible resource,” she said.
Alan Sager, professor of health law, policy and management at Boston University, said in terms of food being a human right, “it continues to be a hard sell.”
“Part of that has to do with the polarization that exists now in politics where there’s such cynicism about the role of government and even the role of nonprofit organizations,” Sager said.
The Chief of Staff for Boston City Council, Sandra Saavedra, said more aid needs to be provided for food-insecure individuals. She said while the grant does help “ensure access to food,” it doesn’t actually pay for food, it pays for “someone whose job it is to ensure that larger sums of money are making their way into the hands of people who need it most.”
“We need to get more money into the hands of low-income families and empower them to shop and eat what they know best,” Saavedra said. “To be able to eat with dignity is a crucial part of not demonizing poverty.”