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Study finds use of food pantries soaring in Mass.

Need for help rose 23 percent

By David Abel
Globe Staff / February 3, 2010

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Nearly 1 in 10 state residents relied on a food pantry, soup kitchen, or shelter last year, a 23 percent increase over 2006, according to a new survey of food banks in Massachusetts.

Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks nationwide, estimated that more than 571,000 state residents relied on food assistance last year.

The state’s food banks distributed 44.7 million pounds of food last year, a 30 percent increase from 2006, reflecting a spike in demand as unemployment and poverty have surged during the recession.

One of those recipients of food assistance is Tom La Masture, 72, who lives with his wife in Lowell and who said they struggle to survive on $2,000 a month they receive from Social Security. La Masture, a retired document checker for an engineering firm, is a diabetic who suffers from a heart ailment. He has been visiting local food pantries for the past two years, since the money ran out from the sale of the couple’s home in California.

“We wouldn’t be eating if we didn’t go to a food pantry,’’ said La Masture, who has to use most of the couple’s income for rent and medication. “Our income just isn’t enough.’’

The study was part of a national survey of food banks that found that more than 37 million Americans, including 14 million children and nearly 3 million seniors, received emergency food assistance last year, a 46 percent increase since the organization’s last study in 2006.

“The picture painted by these studies is simply heartbreaking,’’ said Catherine D’Amato, president and chief executive of the Greater Boston Food Bank, which provides food to about 83,000 people a week. “They show how families are suffering and struggling to make ends meet during a time of economic distress. While we are providing more food than ever, this is still simply not enough.’’

The study also found that more than 1 in 3 families receiving food assistance reported experiencing hunger, a 54 percent increase from 2006.

More than one-third of families surveyed had at least one working adult, but the study found a 68 percent increase in emergency food recipients who had been unemployed for less than a year.

It also found that more than 46 percent of those surveyed said they had to choose between paying for utilities and food; 39 percent said they had to choose between paying for housing and food; and 34 percent reported having to choose between paying for medical bills and food.

“Clearly, the economic recession, resulting in dramatically increasing unemployment nationwide, has driven unprecedented, sharp increases in the need for emergency food assistance and enrollment in federal nutrition programs,’’ said a statement by Vicki Escarra, president and chief executive of Feeding America.

“Millions of our clients are families with children finding themselves in need of food assistance for the very first time.’’

The study, by Mathematica Policy Research Inc., of Princeton, N.J., surveyed 61,000 recipients of food assistance and received responses from 37,000 food providers nationwide.

In Massachusetts, the company surveyed a sample of food recipients at 10 percent of 731 food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters supplied by the Greater Boston Food Bank, as well as similar organizations in Worcester and Western Massachusetts.

The study found that an estimated 21 percent of clients served by Massachusetts food banks are homeless, a 50 percent increase from a similar survey in 2006. It also found that 80 percent of food recipients are living in homes without consistent access to food, up from 68 percent in 2006.

Other notable findings from Massachusetts: About 50 percent of food recipients receive food stamps; 79 percent of households surveyed with children under age 18 lacked sufficient food; and the percentage of clients age 65 or older increased to 14 percent, up from 11 percent in 2006.

For many families receiving food assistance, there’s a stigma.

Jessie, a 28-year-old mother of three young children from Boxborough, did not want her last name used because she was afraid others might look down on her for relying on food pantries.

The recently laid-off employee of a biotechnology firm said she stopped seeking food from pantries in Sudbury and Stowe because she felt people questioned why she was there. “We just got looked down upon,’’ she said.

Now a hostess at a Bickford’s, she and her husband, who was also recently laid off from a job as a manager at a Valvoline shop, together earn less than $25,000 a year. They say they have to seek food assistance.

“It’s a humbling experience, but I’m really grateful that it’s there and it’s helping us,’’ she said, noting they found another food pantry in Acton. “It’s nice that there are people who aren’t judging us because of where we are in our lives.’’

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.