STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, DEC. 27, 2011…..Hundreds of food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters in Massachusetts face unprecedented demand for meals from cash-strapped, struggling residents and are asking state officials to step in to help address the problem.
The state’s four non-profit food banks – which supply food to organizations around the commonwealth – have asked the Patrick administration to increase state funding to $15 million in fiscal year 2013 – a $3.5 million bump from fiscal year 2012. Recent cutbacks in food supplied by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and increased prices make it harder to feed the hungry, according to several advocates.
Some food pantries now face days when they run out entirely and have to shut their doors, advocates said.
“If we don’t get more food we will have a social problem on our hands the likes of which we haven’t seen in a while,” said Andrew Morehouse, executive director of The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.
Catherine D’Amato, president and chief executive officer of The Greater Boston Food Bank, said food received under the USDA’s emergency food assistance program is down 35 percent.
The Congressional Super Committee’s failure to reach consensus means more cuts to food programs, which took a 20 percent decrease in the current federal budget, she said.
State funding to the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program has been level since 2007, and it won’t be enough next year, advocates say.
Earlier this month, the four food banks submitted written testimony to state Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Richard Sullivan to a push for more money.
“The middle class is getting wiped out and going to food pantries,” D’Amato said.
The state commissioner of agricultural resources, who oversees the food assistance money, said there is not a lot of room to grow the program because it already takes up two-thirds of the department’s $16 to $17 million operating budget.
“There is no question we are seeing more demand for those programs as a result of what is happening with the economy,” Commissioner Scott Soares said. “I am concerned overall,” he said about federal cuts. “There are a variety of programs impacted, food programs, and environmental programs. We are all in a period where we are managing to do less with less. It is a reflection of the state of the economy.”
Between 2006 and 2010, the demand for food from food banks grew by 23 percent in Massachusetts.
Federal aid that propped up food bank resources during the height of the recession has receded, but the demand has not, according to officials from The Greater Boston Food Bank, which feeds 545,000 people a year. Places like the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, Rosie’s Place, the Pine Street Inn, and local food pantries in dozens of communities rely on The Greater Boston Food Bank for a bulk of their supplies.
Money from the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program helps buy locally-grown produce – eggs, milk and other fresh staples. But with food prices on the rise – dairy is up 8 percent, and the average price of peanut butter has skyrocketed 30 percent, D’Amato said, “that $11.5 million doesn’t get you $11.5 million anymore.”
The Greater Boston Food Bank serves approximately 550 pantries, soup kitchens and shelters in eastern Massachusetts. Three other banks – The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, the Merrimack Valley Food Bank, and the Worcester County Food Bank – provide to people in need outside the Boston area.
Food banks across the country are helped by the U.S. government with buying surplus food from farmers and distributing it. But a few months ago the USDA warned food banks that supply from the federal government would go down. Massachusetts food suppliers expect to lose the equivalent of almost 2 million meals next year.
Julie LaFontaine, who runs the Open Door Food Pantry in Gloucester, said that after the federal cutbacks started to take effect, some pantries last fall faced severe shortages during a five to six-week period.
“What happened to us, there was a period of time where we would order from the food bank and there would be no USDA food available,” she said. “What it meant was we would be 1,000 pounds a week short.”
She filled the gap with additional local food drives. But, she said, asking people to give more is tough on everyone these days. LaFontaine said her operation saw a 28 percent increase in clients during the last two years, and the number is still climbing. Open Door served 5,140 people in Gloucester last year.
“People are hurting. Even people who don’t have much are giving what they can,” LaFontaine said. “At one of the food drives someone had four cans of tuna fish in a bag and he said, ‘I wish it could be more, but I am on food stamps myself.’ ”
The Greater Boston Food Bank also broke an unwanted record this year, distributing more than 36.7 million pounds of food. The record high depicted a new low for many, with more middle class people turning to food pantries to feed their families, advocates said.
“We describe it as a kind of perfect storm,” said Morehouse, from the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. “We are seeing high levels of demand with more people visiting more frequently. And there is a whole new class of people coming in. It isn’t just the ranks of the lower middle class anymore.
“Life is an exercise in survival for a lot of people. It has been for a long time, but now that it is reaching into the middle class it is becoming a lot more visible to people. They are seeing it in family or friends or they are experiencing it themselves.”
Said LaFontaine, “I know of one family who is struggling to keep a roof over their head to pay their mortgage and also feed their family healthy food. These are people with master’s degrees,” LaFontaine said. “They have done everything right on paper. The economy has left them without a job.”