The Difference a Meal Can Make

The Merrimack Valley Food Bank and United Way are working together to combat hunger and keep people from reaching the tipping point.

The boy regarded his mother. It was dinner time. He was taking bites from his meal, a small bowl of popcorn. She was drinking a glass of water. He asked her if she was going to eat anything. She smiled and said that the ice in the water was enough to fill her up.

This anecdote brings Amy Pessia to tears. She heard it from a colleague and it serves as a constant reminder of the importance of her work, and the insidious nature of hunger in America.

Pessia is the Executive Director of the Merrimack Valley Food Bank, where she started as a volunteer fifteen years ago before joining the staff four years later. During her tenure, she has seen much; but the most jarring observation is that they are still in business today, and business is booming.

“In the past five years, the amount of food we distribute and the number of people we are serving has doubled,” she says. “I have personally watched this organization grow to serve so many. We never thought we would be in business this long. We never imagined we’ve be distributing so much food to so many people.”

Based in Lowell, the Food Bank services 32 cities and towns, from Salisbury to Boston to Windham, NH to Fitchburg. The Food Bank collects donations of all sizes, stores them in their 20,000 square foot warehouse, and dispatches food to organizations once a week. By providing transportation and storage for the direct service agencies, Pessia and her staff are able to take on logistics and capacity that no other organization can.

Pessia describes the Food Bank’s work like this: if they are like the Federal Reserve Bank, the different pantries, shelters and programs are the neighborhood bank branches. All in all, the stats are eye-popping: 115 programs served, 3 million pounds of food distributed a year, 60,000 people fed per month.

“We and our partner agencies offer these services to help people move forward with their lives,” Pessia says. “Most people would prefer not to rely on government assistance and the nonprofit feeding agencies and other providers alleviate that dependence. In many cases, a few meals can help people get through whatever difficulty they’re experiencing.”

Hunger puts families and individuals on the rack of impossible choices. Finite resources have to go somewhere: rent, utilities, gas for the car. When you live on the knife’s edge and a missed bill means your heat is turned off or job loss, grocery shopping falls swiftly to the bottom of the priority ladder.

“There’s just not enough left over after people pay their bills,” Pessia says. “If we can provide people with even a little bit of food, resources can be freed up to pay rent or utilities. It might seem like a stretch, but a few meals could very well be that difference.”

The Merrimack Valley Food Bank receives money from United Way’s Family Fund, a pool of resources that goes out to providers serving these needs of immediacy. Last year, United Way helped 45,480 households, including more than 30,000 children with food assistance.

“For every dollar donated, it’s worth five dollars in food,” she says, pointing to the fact that the Food Bank expends 85% of its revenues on hunger relief. “One dollar provided can provide four meals.”

Today, the need is the greatest it’s ever been and this period in the calendar tends to be the busiest–and the leanest as far as donations go. Once the omnipresence of good tidings of the holiday season has passed, the Food Bank sees a killer lull.

“It’s almost like we cease to exist in the minds of some people,” Pessia says. “These months are when our shelves start getting low. And if our shelves are almost empty, it means the pantries’ shelves are almost empty.”

Keeping these shelves stocked can mean the difference between deliverance and disaster in a person’s life. Yet despite the high stakes and the sometimes overwhelming crush of need, Amy Pessia knows that the service she and her partners provides and the work that United Way’s Family Fund supports can stem the tide, and keep someone at the precipice from tumbling down.

“People have gone from in the worst possible financial, physical and mental state to being a success,” she says.

You only need to look at that little boy, years ago watching his mother sip water at the dinner table. Now he looks back on that situation with fascination. He hadn’t thought he was poor, he confessed to Pessia’s friend, when he told the story. The normalcy of his poverty was insidious. But, today, he doesn’t have time to dwell on this sad artifact. He has to concentrate on his studies at the University of Massachusetts.