Hunger in Greater Boston is a well-known problem, but it’s showing up in places we don’t usually see it. Local communities are finding new ways to address the issue of hunger in unexpected places.
Teachers in Weymouth have a problem. Several kids in their classes are having a hard time concentrating on their work—more so than ever before. The problem isn’t excitement over Halloween or the usual back to school jitters—it’s hunger. More kids are facing food insecurity in Weymouth than they have in recent years, and it’s impacting their ability to learn. Enter Weymouth Food Pantry, which has rolled out a new take-home weekend backpack program with Abigail Adams Elementary School. With Weymouth High School, they are working with adjustment counselors to set up a discreet, onsite drop-in food pantry for students who need assistance.
Communities with high poverty rates have been addressing hunger and its harmful effects for decades. But numbers have been on the rise in recent years in places that historically have had less need — places like suburban towns in greater Boston or on college campuses across the state. High costs of housing, wages that are not keeping pace with the cost of living, and ripple effects from issues like the opioid crisis are causing more children and young adults to experience hunger than ever before. Fortunately, local communities and grassroots organizations are responding.
On the rise in unexpected places
According to the Boston Globe, wealthier communities such as Hingham, Winchester, Sudbury and Needham have experienced large increases in the numbers of children in need over the past decade. Experts point to high costs of housing, wages that have not kept pace with the cost of living, lack of savings and high debt as factors contributing to the rise in hunger in many communities.
Experts look to the percentages of children eligible for free- or reduced-lunch programs to help gauge these community trends. According to a joint report issued this year by Children’s HealthWatch and the EOS Foundation, 44% of children statewide qualify for free or reduced meals. That’s 400,000 children at risk of being hungry in schools across the Commonwealth. Rates climb as high as 87% in the region’s high-poverty school districts.
Also startling is the number of Massachusetts public college and universities reporting dramatic increases hunger and homelessness. The Massachusetts Board of Higher Education’s annual “Hunger and Homelessness Survey” reports a 34% increase in students being served by food pantries, a 38% increase in students facing food insecurity, and a 45% increase in student homelessness. The report cites lack of family support, high cost of living, student debt and insufficient funds are contributing to the dramatic rise in need.
EOS and Children’s Health Watch are advocating for greater access to free- and reduced breakfast programs to help ensure more children get the best start each day. Children who participate in these “Before the Bell” school breakfast programs report lower absentee rates, improved test scores, fewer visits to the school nurse (usually for stomach aches associated with hunger) and better overall health outcomes.
Massachusetts’ colleges and universities are also responding to the increased need. The Board of Higher Education reports that 13 of the state’s community colleges, seven state colleges and four UMASS campuses have either a food pantry on site or are served by a mobile food pantry. Nearly all of those public colleges are offering connections to other community resources and referrals to their students, and half are offering hunger awareness programs.
The Metropolitan Area Planning Council recommends a comprehensive approach to solving the hunger challenges in our communities, including expansion of successful anti-poverty programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit to increase incomes for working individuals and families, expanding workforce development programs to help people get better jobs, expanding nutrition education to foster healthier eating habits on a budget, and expanding physical access to fresh, healthy food and provide better transportation to grocery stores.
How local community organizations are responding to the increased need
United Way’s Family Fund is providing critical resources to organizations across the region who are addressing hunger in local communities. Last year, United Way provided over $75,000 to its network of organizations that provide food assistance. These funds helped served 41,500 households. Here are a few more examples of how some of the organizations funded by United Way are responding in their communities:
- The Merrimack Valley Food Bank (MVFB) reports an increase in hunger and food insecurity among individuals and families facing opioid addiction and mental health issues. One woman, for example, gained custody of her three grandchildren because of extensive medical treatment and educational support the children’s parents required. With the new custody, she attended increased appointments and school conferences for her grandchildren, but was let go by her employer as a result of the increased absences from work. She shared her story with the volunteer who greeted her on her first visit to MVFB.
- Several food pantries offer mobile food market assistance to reach so-called “food deserts,” communities where low-income families have limited access to nutritious emergency groceries. United Way teamed up with American Red Cross to launch a mobile food and nutrition assistance program, specifically designed to serve communities and populations experiencing high hunger rates. The Food and Nutrition Mobile Market provides nutritious food assistance, nutritional counseling and food stamp benefits assistance once per month, and emergency groceries up to once a week in targeted communities. Communities served by the mobile program include Lynn, Chelsea, East Boston, and Revere.
- The Open Door provides qualified households with access to free fruits and vegetables at a variety of locations in Gloucester, Rockport, Ipswich and Essex. The markets include distribution of fresh produce, cooking demonstrations and recipes.
The emotional effects of hunger can be more acute around the holiday season. This month, United Way will provide over 6,500 families — that’s 25,000 people annually — with the full ingredients needed for a Thanksgiving celebration. Over 150,000 pounds of food are distributed in communities across the region, including Haverhill, Lawrence, Lynn, Somerville, Dorchester, South Boston, South End, Quincy, Weymouth and Randolph.
As food costs continue to rise and the demand for assistance remains high, local corporations and volunteers continue to step forward to donate food, funding and their own time to help feed more families and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to enjoy a Thanksgiving holiday meal with their loved ones.
For information on how you can help, visit https://unitedwaymassbay.org/what-we-do/supporting-families-in-need/thanksgiving-project/