By Michelle Xiarhos Curran
“I can’t believe I am having to call you.”
For an increasing number of people, this is how a conversation with one of Project Bread’s FoodSource Hotline counselors begins. Each year, the state’s largest anti-hunger organization receives nearly 50,000 calls from people in Massachusetts who are struggling to feed their families. That’s a staggering number.
But according to the USDA, 10.8 percent of households – or more than 700,000 people – in the Massachusetts are food insecure, meaning that it’s an uphill battle for many just to put food on their tables.
“It is the highest rate recorded in the Commonwealth,” Project Bread’s Director of Programs Sarah Cluggish says about the latest USDA report, which has been conducted since 1995.
Hunger isn’t an issue going away anytime soon. The flailing economy and resulting unemployment rates are devastating the poor and pinching more and more middle class families – many of whom donated to hunger-relief efforts in the past – right out of food security.
“They’re the ones struggling for the first time in their lives,” says Stacy Wilbur, director of public relations for Project Bread. “They’ve never had to ask for help before.” And it shows. Cluggish reports that many middle class callers are waiting too long – until they’ve exhausted their savings or maxed out their credit cards – before asking for help.
Food Pantries Strained
This broadening scope of hunger is causing historic numbers of people to visit local food pantries. “We’ve never seen anything like this year,” says Rick Doane, executive director of Interfaith Social Services in Quincy, which has operated a food pantry for needy South Shore residents since 1975.
Since 2008 – when a recession first sidelined the U.S. economy – the number of people served by Interfaith Social Services has increased from 10,000 to 17,000 annually. That increase includes families in which one or both parents have lost their jobs, as well as working families simply struggling with the high cost of living.
“The norm used to be single mothers or your average poor person,” says Alyse Barbash, director of Haven from Hunger in Peabody, which operates a meals program and food pantry. “Now your norm is the working poor.”
“Everybody has been affected by this, but people don’t talk about it,” says Doane, who notes that in June of this year, Interfaith Social Services served more people than in the previous December, traditionally the busiest month for food pantries.
The rising need for food help is compounded by reduced assistance from the government, but Doane notes that donations from the community – which had been lagging due to the bad economy – are once again on the rise. Keeping up with demand for help has been the greater challenge, but no one is being turned away.
“There are a lot of people that are in need,” he says, “but we’re helping them.”
At Haven from Hunger, Barbash faces not only the challenge of a general increase in the number of hungry people it serves, but also an influx of new clients due to the closure of a nearby food pantry.
"The line was out the door all day long,” she says of a recent weekday, when 80 clients – double the usual 40 – arrived for a meal.
In Gloucester at The Open Door, longtime Executive Director Julie LaFontaine has seen a 28 percent increase in the number of people visiting the Community Meals program or shopping at the food pantry over the last two years.
“That number climbs every month,” she says. “We’re serving more people than we’ve ever served and the numbers have continued to climb.”
Pushing for Change
Project Bread is currently in the process of completing its annual report on hunger in Massachusetts. Cluggish hopes to change perceptions and banish the shame of hunger, but the report – which would have become available to the public around Thanksgiving – will also include recommendations, such as continued support of the government-funded WIC and SNAP programs, possible healthy food partnerships and other, broader solutions to hunger’s root causes, all geared toward ending the crisis here in Massachusetts.
Still, with the upcoming winter and holiday season, things are almost certain to get worse before they get better.
“Winter is always a difficult time. The holidays are always a difficult time,” Cluggish says. “It’ll be a struggle.”
“We’re bracing for our busiest season in 65 years of serving the South Shore,” Doane says. “I think we’re going to be slammed,” echoes Barbash. “I think the doors are going to be busting down.”
Michelle Xiarhos Curran is a freelance writer and regular contributor to the Boston Parents Paper.
Helping with Hunger
Whether your family is struggling with hunger or simply wants to help with a donation of funds, food or time this holiday season and beyond, there are numerous local food pantries trying to meet a growing need.
Check in with food pantries in your community or head online to www.projectbread.org for a downloadable Food Resource Guide, call Project Bread’s FoodSource Hotline at 1-800-645-8333, or visit the Greater Boston Food Bank at www.gbfb.org for a searchable database of area food pantries and meal programs.