BOSTON — Between cooking meals and making deliveries to combat changing needs, food pantries have had their hands full during the pandemic.
And following the expiration of expanded unemployment benefits through the federal government, groups that provide emergency meals are expecting another surge in need.
Food insecurity reached new highs in the past year, but experts worry the full effects of the pandemic’s economic upheaval are still to come — even as vaccination rates rise. Western Massachusetts saw a roughly 47 percent increase in hunger over the pandemic, with the greatest impact on child hunger, national nonprofit Feeding America estimates. A growing number of visits to food pantries and use of government aid, including the supplemental nutritional assistance program, reflected the increase in Berkshire County.
“During COVID, we saw a lot more people who had never used our services and had never needed support, ever,” said Lillian Baulding, communications and engagement officer at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.
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While food pantries welcomed growing numbers of consumers with bags of food and sanitizer, federal assistance such as stimulus checks and expanded unemployment benefits helped some residents.
“At first with the pandemic, usage [of pantries and emergency meals] went up quite a bit,” said Mark Rondeau, executive director of Berkshire Food Project and board president for the Al Nelson Friendship Center Food Pantry, both in North Adams. “Then people started getting federal benefits.”
But, a $300-per-week boost in unemployment benefits through the federal CARES Act ended in September, leading food pantries to anticipate yet another uptick in visitors.
State and local governments, however, can still use federal aid through the American Rescue Plan Act to support emergency food assistance networks. On Oct. 14, Boston Mayor Kim Janey and the Mayor’s Office of Food Access announced $2.2 million in grant funding will go to 39 local nonprofit organizations to fight statewide food insecurity.
“The pandemic has highlighted the disparities that exist in our City, including food insecurity,” said Janey. “I am proud to award this funding to local nonprofits already making an impact in our communities, and I know this will help their work to make Boston a more equitable city for all our residents.”
Food pantries in the Greater Boston area currently distribute enough food to provide three meals a day to every food-insecure individual, according to the Greater Boston Food Bank.
The Massachusetts Legislature has started taking action to spend its roughly $4.8 billion in remaining ARPA funds as well as an estimated $1.5 billion budget surplus. A plan released Monday by House leaders would allocate $78 million for “food security infrastructure grants.”
Despite the anticipated increase in need, volunteers say they expect no shortage in supply of food or staff. Many organizations expanded existing relationships with local farms to bring in as much healthy food as possible. Berkshire Grown connects local farms with the community, and its new Farm-to-Food access program, started at the beginning of the pandemic, has received money from state and federal funding to support food pantries.
“The farmers benefit because we’re scheduling [in] advance large purchasing quantities at low price, and the pantries are benefiting because they’re getting nutrient dense food,” said Margaret Moulton, executive director of Berkshire Grown. “This was a need that felt really like the right thing to do, and I still think it is.”
Older volunteers — once staying home to avoid contracting COVID-19 — have come back to food pantries to assist with the expected growth in consumers. As vaccination rates rise in Massachusetts, volunteers feel safer against the virus.
“At the beginning, the older volunteers stepped back, and younger people came forward,” Rondeau said.
While average daily cases have decreased since the beginning of 2021 and volunteers have returned to work, many food pantries —including Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, Al Nelson Friendship Center and Berkshire Food Project — have no set date to return to pre-pandemic practices. Since the beginning of the pandemic, many locations have switched from dine-in to takeout only, with volunteers taking safety precautions.
“Since COVID hit, we require that people wear masks in line, volunteers wear masks,” said Baulding. “We have cones six feet apart in line so that people stand six feet apart from one another.”
In Boston, the Greater Boston Food Bank has also followed the same protocols since the beginning of the pandemic.
Although many pantries have not declared a date to fully reopen, volunteers remain optimistic about food service in the coming months.
“We can breathe,” said Moulton. “Now let’s think forward.”