The shelves are all but bare at pantries in some communities after federal funding dried up last week, with many anxiously awaiting a fresh round of cash.
“I will scramble to get whatever I can on the shelves and it’s my hope that I can continue to feed my community,” said Gladys Vega, executive director at the Chelsea-based La Colaborativa. “But we don’t have months to lose. We need this fast.”
Food insecurity has exploded across the nation — including in Massachusetts — as jobs and paychecks have disappeared during the pandemic. The Greater Boston Food Bank fed 640,000 people in November. Feeding America estimates a 66% increase in food insecurity in Eastern Massachusetts since March.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box program has been an integral part of keeping food on the shelves in pop-up food pantries like Vega’s. The program that was launched amid the pandemic has been plagued with problems from the outset.
The model to purchase and distribute farmed food to families in need was described as “overly complex” by GBFB spokeswoman Catherine Drennan. The program only accounted for about 4% of food resources for the regional food bank, but some pantries have become reliant on the program that has distributed 132 million food boxes nationwide .
At the Salvation Army in Lynn, Capt. Kevin Johnson said he went from serving 70 families three days a week to serving 700 cars five days per week at his drive-thru pantry.
The USDA program was the “primary food source” used to make up the difference. Without it, the pantry was forced to shut down last week for the first time since March. Salvation Army pantries in New Bedford and Chelsea were also strained.
La Colaborativa also shut down but reopened on Monday. Vega and her team handed out 400 boxes of food — far fewer than the 1,300 to 2,500 they usually distribute.
“When people tell you ‘I don’t have milk for my child,’ it’s heartbreaking to turn them away,” Vega said, standing in La Colaborativa’s nearly empty warehouse. The 18,000 square-foot-facility is typically overflowing with produce, bread, canned goods and other items that fill the 40-pound food boxes they provide to more than 8,000 Chelsea families per week.
La Coloborativa had never operated as a food pantry prior to the pandemic but the social services nonprofit pivoted to meet the needs of its community. Chelsea — a city of service workers and working-class immigrants — has also seen some of the highest rates of COVID-19 infection since the onset of the pandemic.
“We’ve become a lifeline,” Vega said.
Donate to La Colaborativa here.
Donate to the Salvation Army here.