For more than 20 years, Andrea Allen-Glenn has helped people in need have one less thing to worryabout each week. As the food coordinator for the Emergency Food Assistance Program at Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services on Rutland Street, Allen-Glenn connects people who need food with fresh produce, meat and other items.
Organizations such as Allen-Glenn’s have seen the faces of hunger for generations. But this year, the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the problem, and more people are turning to food pantries than ever before. “There is a lot of need," and Andrea Allen-Glenn, food coordinator for the Emergency Food Pantry at Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services in Springfield, says her agency has seen a dramatic increase in the number of people seeking assistance. People from Longmeadow, Chicopee and other area communities have sought food in recent weeks. At right, Arnold Andrea Allen-Glenn, food coordinator for the Emergency Food Pantry at Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services in Springfield, says her agency has seen a dramatic increase in the number of people seeking assistance. People from Longmeadow, Chicopee and other area communities have sought food in recent weeks.
At right, Arnold Emory and Michael Akers organize cans of food for distribution by the pantry.
It’s not just people who live in the neighborhood,” Allen-Glenn said. “I am seeing people coming from Longmeadow, Chicopee and other communities. They need food, but they don’t want their neighbors to know they are in need.” According to data compiled by The Associated Press on quarterly food distributions at food banks across the country, three major Massachusetts food banks saw double-digit percent increases in the third quarter of 2020 compared to the same quarter in 2019. The Greater Boston Food Bank saw the greatest increase: Food distributions, measured in total pounds, were up by 65.7%. Distributions at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts that serves the state’s four western counties were up 38.2%, and the Worcester County Food Bank saw an increase of 11.7%.
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Andrew Morehouse, executive director of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, says the need has always been there – but it has increased substantially since March. “Communities like Springfield and Holyoke that are predominantly made up of communities of people of color are being particularly hard hit because of the COVID-19 virus and its impact on the economy,” says Morehouse. “So many businesses are struggling that people have lost their jobs and their source of income. It’s something we need to be very mindful of because everyone deserves and needs to have healthy food.”
Some 45% of the people served by the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts are children and senior citizens, but the faces of hunger have changed since the pandemic hit, adds Morehouse. “Our children and elders are the most vulnerable in our community,” he says. “However, we are also providing food for about 20,000 people a month who have never been to a pantry or meal site before. These are working folks who had never had to rely on public assistance and now have to go to a meal site for a bag of groceries or a hot meal.” The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts provides food for nearly 200 member agencies, including food pantries and meal sites in Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin and Berkshire counties. In September, the organization provided meals for 116,000 people. In Springfield alone in the past 12 months 32,000 people were served — a 41% increase over the previous year, according to Morehouse.
In the past 12 months the food bank has provided the equivalent of 4 million meals in all four Western Massachusetts counties, with 65% made up of fresh produce, meat and dairy products, he said. The Greater Boston Food Bank provides food to more than 500 member agencies in 190 eastern Massachusetts cities and towns. “Now nine months into this crisis with another COVID-19 surge upon us, we continue to experience historic levels of food insecurity throughout thestate resulting in record levels of distribution,” says Catherine Drennan, the organization’s senior director of public affairs and communications.
Feeding America released revised 2020 projections in October, showing Massachusetts with the nation’s greatest projected increase in food insecurity, an increase of 59% compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to Drennan. Statewide, it’s estimated that one in seven individuals and one in five children will struggle to get enough healthy food this year.
Jean McMurray, executive director of the Worcester County Food Bank, says the increased need has been significant. The organization provides food for 115 partner agencies from pantries to community meal programs and shelters. “In April we saw a 205% increase in the number of people going to a food pantry for the first time and those numbers stayed pretty high and then started to taper off a little bit, we know due to additional SNAP benefits, unemployment assistance. When people have extra resources it really does make a difference in whether or not they can eat and meet all of their other needs,” she says.
By fall, as people exhausted unemployment benefits, the numbers started to rise again, according to McMurray. “We have seen about a 27% increase compared to a year ago,” she says. “Our network of food pantries went from serving 30,320 people a month to 38,830 people per month.” McMurray says the Worcester agency has received thousands of calls since the pandemic hit from people just wanting to know how they could access food for their families. “We had a hunger and food insecurity problem before the pandemic and too many of our neighbors were struggling, so for them the pandemic made things worse. For people who had never had to turn to a food pantry before, their first struggle was how to find help,” she says.
Each of the major food banks relies on funding from individual donors, small businesses and grants from the state and federal government to purchase food from regional farmers and grocery stores. U.S. Rep. James McGovern, D-Worcester, has championed for food banks for decades and has brought the issues of food insecurity and hunger before Congress. “I think it’s really sad that we live in the richest country in the history of the world that we have allowed this problem to go on for so long and are not responding more aggressively to it now in the middle of a health crisis is astounding to me,” he says.
Issues of food insecurity and hunger are not going away any time soon, the congressman adds. “We need a COVID-19 relief package that actually provides additional money for our food banks and food pantries,” Mc-Govern says. “We need to have a relief package that increases SNAP benefits for people who need it, and that state and andlocal governments have the funding to ensure kids, many of whom are learning form their homes, have access to adequate nutrition.” U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, says financial support is needed to help families as well as food banks, which are providing services for more people. “We are pushing very hard to extend the CARES Act, even on a temporary basis to get us until March, so that President-elect (Joe) Biden will have a chance to then assess where we are,” Neal says. “We lost 22 million jobs and have only regained 12 million of them. We are looking at 10 million people who never dreamed they would be unemployed or collecting an unemployment check, and we need to address that issue before the end of the year.”
Allen-Glenn says the faces of those who need food have changed dramatically this year. “We are getting a lot of diversity. It used to be that we wanted to have a bilingual person on staff who spoke Spanish and English, but now we are getting people from different places,” she explains. “We have had people who speak Swahili, we’ve had people from Haiti and various Asian countries, faces we have never seen before.” Just last month the center served 2,500 individuals, up from an average of 2,000 people before the pandemic.
Ronn Johnson, president and CEO of Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services, says the pandemic not only changed the faces of those in need of food, but also the way in which people access food. His agency’s food pantry is situated in a “food desert,” with no major grocery stores within walking distance of the neighborhoods. Most people drive or take public transportation to larger grocery stores or buy food from small corner markets that don’t have fresh produce. “We actually noticed in the first few weeks of the pandemic that numbers were lower, our elders were not coming to get food,” Johnson says. “We were missing some folks, and we figured out it was mainly because of the stay-at-homeorder and transportation issues.”
The pantry has also seen an increase in clients from surroundingsuburban communities, according to Johnson. “We know that people of color are disproportionately affected, but in terms of those who are losing their jobs and economic base, it is far reaching,” Johnson says. “We are seeing people that come from Ware, Monson and Palmer and other communities that people don’t realize have pockets of food insecurity, but some of those folks are living on the margins due to losing their jobs.”
Small family-owned businesses as well as nationwide corporations have shown support for food banks and emergency food pantries through monetary donations. Two weeks ago, Dan and Jane Roulier, the owners of Dan Roulier & Associates, donated $25,000 to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts with a challenge to other businesses to donate what they can. By week’s end Springfield Mayor Domenic J. Sarno announced two additional companies, Kelly-Fradet Lumber in East Longmeadow and Crowley & Associates in Wilbraham, pledged an additional $12,500 each toward the food bank’s work. That same day someone made an anonymous $25,000 donation. “It’s only with support like this, from people, not institutions, that we are able to carry out our mission to feed ourneighbors in need,” Morehouse says. “A $25,000 donation has a tremendous impact. It provides the equivalent of 100,000 meals because for every $1 donated to the food bank we are able to provide four meals.” With just a few weeks left until the new year, manypeople are hoping 2021 will bring a COVID-19 vaccine, a restored economy and a brighter tomorrow. But those who have been battling food insecurity for decades know there is no easy solution to the new, elevated demand.
“This is not going to be something that is going to be resolved in six months,” Johnson says. “It is going to take a much longer time for a lot of people to feel comfortable taking a vaccine and the availability may not be as rapid as we want it to be in some communities. We are in this for the ride and we are not looking at it as something that has an end date.”
“Our children and elders are the most vulnerable in our community. However, we are also providing food for about 20,000 people a month who have never been to a pantry or meal site before. These are working folks who had never had to rely on public assistance and now have to go to a meal site for a bag of groceries or a hot meal.”
Andrew Morehouse, executive director, Food Bank of Western Massachusetts Builder Dan Roulier, second from right, and his wife, Jane, made a $25,000 donation on Dec. 3 to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. At left is food bank executive director Andrew Morehouse and at right is Springfield Mayor Domenic J. Sarno. The Rouliers challenged others to come forward and the following day two additional donations of $12,500 each were received. (PATRICK JOHNSON / THE REPUBLICAN FILE PHOTO)
Andrea Allen-Glenn, food coordinator for the Emergency Food Pantry at Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services in Springfield, says her agency has seen a dramatic increase in the number of people seeking assistance. People from Longmeadow, Chicopee and other area communities have sought food in recent weeks. At right, Arnold Emory and Michael Akers organize cans of food for distribution by the pantry.