WALTHAM, MA — At the outset of the pandemic and the realization that schools would need to close and many people would be out of work, neighbors in Waltham mobilized. Although much was uncertain about the days ahead, the one thing many agreed upon was that people experiencing food insecurity in the city, especially children, shouldn’t suffer.
Nonprofit groups from the Boys & Girls Club to Watch City and Healthy Waltham, and Mayor Jeannette McCarthy herself, stepped forward in an effort to help get food to those who were having to make hard decisions about how to pay rent, bills and food.
In April, May and June, the pop-up food pantries — where residents could come and pick up groceries meant to last a week for a family of four — were so well attended that all of the groceries ran out in the first hour.
The effort is making a difference in people’s lives. Two sisters wrote to Healthy Waltham recently to thank it for the emergency-response food pantries. They’d never needed to go to a food pantry before, they said. But when one of them lost their job, they didn’t know how they would pay for rent and groceries.
Volunteers who ran the pantries had to adjust and offered gift cards for local groceries when they ran out of actual food. But what no one anticipated was that the pandemic and the economic downturn would impact residents for so long. The trend of outdoor food pantries popping up in the parking lot of St. Mary’s or Government Center appears to be here to stay.
“The number of people coming for help have not gone down; we would have thought they would,” Myriam Michel, executive director of Healthy Waltham, told Patch.
Before the outbreak, Healthy Waltham’s monthly food pantries served 250 to 300 families. Now, it has moved to near-weekly pantries to provide fresh produce, meat and pantry staples. The number of families served is up to 600 to 650 families per event, Michel said.
From April 1 to July 2, the 10 Healthy Waltham emergency-response pantries served more than 5,000 families with more than 22,000 bags of groceries, she said. That’s more than 140,000 pounds of food.
Each family receives an average of four bags filled with food, including meat and poultry, canned goods, fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as soap, toothbrushes and deodorant, according to Michel.
The executive director said food insecurity experts are predicting that as residents continue to struggle amid job loss, the insecurity will also continue for months and possibly years.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as having “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.”
According to new projections released this week by Feeding America, 1 in 8 people in Eastern Massachusetts is expected to experience food insecurity in 2020 as a result of the impact of COVID-19. That’s a 59 percent increase over the most recent Feeding America report, which showed that one in 13 people were considered food insecure in the region before the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Greater Boston Food Bank, the largest hunger-relief organization in New England, has seen a corresponding surge in the demand for food throughout Eastern Massachusetts.
By the end of May, the Greater Boston Food Bank, which helps sponsor pop-up food banks in Waltham, experienced the two largest distribution months in its 40-year history, distributing 8.1 million pounds of food in March 2020 and 9.5 million pounds in April.
To put that number into perspective, its highest average monthly distribution prior to the pandemic was 5.7 million pounds in 2019.
“Unfortunately, these new food insecurity projections do not surprise, us as we have seen a dramatic increase in the demand for food in our region,” Catherine D’Amato, president of the Greater Boston Food Bank, said in a statement.
For children in Massachusetts, food insecurity is projected to increase 81 percent, making Massachusetts the state with the second-highest percent change in children at risk of food insecurity in the country, according to Feeding America. In Eastern Massachusetts, child food insecurity is projected to rise 93 percent, with 1 in 6 children now at risk to experience hunger.
Compounding this increase is the high cost of food in the state and the unemployment rate. In Massachusetts, that rate rose to 17.4 percent in June, up from 16.6 percent in May, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report released earlier this month, making it one of the highest in the nation. The state was one of just five that saw its unemployment rate go up in June.
Back in Waltham, the response to the food pantries has been met with gratitude, and the continued long lines have the nonprofit Healthy Waltham working to adjust for the long haul.
“It has has us thinking about what we need to do to keep this as a resource for people,” Michel said.
Healthy Waltham will host its next pantry from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the St. Mary’s Parish Parking Lot.
Watch CDC also released its list of free food resources for the week:
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