SPRINGFIELD — For more than 20 years, Andrea Allen-Glenn has helped people in need have one less thing to worry about 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 like Allen-Glenn’s have seen the faces of hunger for generations. But this year, the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the problem, and more people turning to food pantries than ever before.
“There is a lot of need and 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 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 were up 38.2%, and the Worcester County Food Bank saw an increase of 11.7%.
Andrew Morehouse, executive director of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, said 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. 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 heathy food,” he said.
Morehouse said 45% of the people the organization serves are children and senior citizens, but the faces of hunger have changed since the pandemic hit.
“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,” he said.
The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts provides food for nearly 200 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 last 12 months 32,000 people were served — a 41% increase over the previous year, Morehouse said.
In the last 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 the state resulting in record levels of distribution,” said Catherine Drennan, the organization’s senior director of public affairs and communications.
She said 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. Statewide, it’s estimated that 1 in 7 individuals and 1 in 5 children will struggle to get enough healthy food this year.
Jean McMurray, executive director of the Worcester County Food Bank, said 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 percent 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 said.
In the fall, as people exhausted unemployment benefits, the numbers started to rise again, McMurray said.
“We have seen about a 27 percent increase compared to a year ago,” she said. “Our network of food pantries went from serving 30,320 people a month to 38,830 people per month.”
McMurray said the 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 said.
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 local farmers and grocery stores.
U.S. Rep. Jim 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 said.
McGovern said the issues of food insecurity and hunger are not going away any time soon.
“We need a COVID-19 relief package that actually provides additional money for our food banks and food pantries,” he said. “We need to have a relief package that increases SNAP benefits for people who need it, and that state and and local 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, said 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 Biden will have a chance to then assess where we are,” he said.
“We lost 22 million jobs and have only regained 12 million of them,” he said. “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 said 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. We have had people who speak Swahili, we’ve had people from Haiti and various Asian countries, faces we have never seen before,” she said. Just last month the center served 2,500 individuals, up from an average of 2,000 people before the pandemic.
Ronald Johnson, president and CEO of Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services, said the pandemic not only changed the faces of those in need of food, but also the way in which people access food. The MLK Emergency Food Pantry is located 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. We were missing some folks and we figured out it was mainly because of the stay at home order and transportation issues,” he said.
Johnson said the pantry has also seen an increase in clients from surrounding suburban communities.
“We know that people of color are disproportionally affected, but in terms of those who are losing their jobs and economic base, it is far reaching. 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,” he said.
Small family-owned businesses as well as nationwide corporations have shown support for local food banks and emergency food pantries through monetary donations.
Food Link, a food rescue organization serving eastern Massachusetts, recently received $60,000 in program support from Kohl’s.
“Kohl’s Cares’ overwhelming generosity will enable Food Link to collect more nutritious, fresh food and deliver it to communities in eastern Massachusetts that are suffering greatly from food insecurity, including Lawrence, Lowell, Revere, and Chelsea,” said DeAnne Dupont, executive director at Food Link.
Last week, Dan and Jane Roulier, the owners of Dan Roulier & Associates, Inc. donated $25,000 to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts with a challenge to other businesses to donate what they can.
Springfield Mayor Domenic J. Sarno announced Monday that two additional local companies, Kelly-Fradet Lumber in East Longmeadow and Crowley & Associates in Wilbraham, pledged an additional $12,500 each towards 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 our neighbors in need,” Morehouse said. “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, many people 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. 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,” Johnson said. “We are in this for the ride and we are not looking at it as something that has an end date.”