More Bay State families than ever are going hungry

Joan Goodchild
Food insecurity rates have doubled in Massachusetts during the pandemic, and hunger experts say it tends to be higher among households with children.

As COVID-19 spread around the country last spring, millions of Americans lost jobs, and many took a massive hit to income. Thousands of families found themselves without the means to buy food, and hunger has become an urgent issue amid the pandemic.

The virus emergency has pushed food insecurity – a term used to describe a household's inability to provide enough food for every person to live an active, healthy life – to critical levels. In fact, food insecurity rates have doubled in Massachusetts during the pandemic, and hunger experts say it tends to be higher among households with children. In the Bay State, there is a five percentage point gap between households with children (19 percent of which are food insecure) and households without children (14 percent of which are food insecure).

Officials with The Greater Boston Food Bank said one in 8 residents of Eastern Massachusetts was predicted to experience food insecurity in the last year as a result of the impact of the COVID-19.

“The coronavirus pandemic has created a hunger crisis,” said Erin McAleer, CEO of Project Bread, a non-profit with a mission to prevent hunger by making it easier for everyone in Massachusetts to access and afford food. “Closed businesses and social distancing measures have depleted work and incomes, leaving one in six Massachusetts residents and one in five households with children facing food insecurity, that is, they don’t know where their next meal is coming from – a stark number that will continue to rise as the number of new COVID-19 cases surge.”

Data also reveals that Black and Hispanic households with children are much more likely to be impacted by food insecurity.

“The numbers, as they were pre-pandemic, are worse for households of color: one out of every three Black families with children faced hunger last month. This is twice the rate of white households facing the same grim situation.”

Project Bread works in partnership food pantries and other organizations to connect people and communities to reliable sources of food while also advocating for policies that make food more accessible. The organization is an active member of the Emergency Task Force on Coronavirus and Equity, advocating for state legislative and administrative policies aimed at reducing the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 crisis on vulnerable populations, such as low-wage workers, immigrants, non-English speakers, people who are housing insecure or experiencing homelessness, people with disabilities, people who are food insecure, and people who are incarcerated, said McAleer.

Getting to the root of food insecurity

Daniel’s Table, a Framingham-based organization with programming dedicated to nutrition and education has several programs to assist local families with access to food. CEO David Blais says Daniel’s Table has seen a five-fold increase in its food distribution in recent months.

“Many of the residents in the area are in the service professions,” he said. “Waiters, cooks, counter help, etc. This is the hardest hit population, so job loss or loss of hours has a huge impact.”

Daniel’s Table offers several different kinds of services to area residents to address food insecurity, including a freezer program. Local freezers are installed in schools, YMCAs and community centers and packed with high quality, nutritional proteins and vegetables. Clients show an ID and that allows freezer managers to distribute restaurant quality food to families.

But Blais said another mission of Daniel’s Table is not just about helping with hunger but addressing the core reasons for food insecurity.

“We are failing to address the real issue of hunger,” he said. “The fact is there is more than enough food. It is the lack of collaboration between service providers and poor distribution channels that limit the success of food programs and keeps people hungry.”

For those families struggling and who need assistance with food access, there are a number of options. Start local and contact community officials, centers or town halls and ask for a list of area food providers.

Project Bread runs Massachusetts’ only statewide food access hotline that can help connect families in need with local resources. Their toll-free FoodSource Hotline (1-800-645-8333), provides wide-ranging food assistance from screening and signing people up for the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), to connecting callers to resources Project Bread supports, such as free meals for kids. Counselors can also help locate and refer clients to emergency food programs, such as community meals and food pantries.

Blais said it is important not to be afraid or ashamed to advocate for yourself and your family and reach out for information and support.

“Ask friends or neighbors if they are aware of any available programs. Be willing to share information and, if you are here without a visa, reach out to a trusted service provider for help. Don't refuse help because you are afraid, there is help available that is discreet and effective.”