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Greater Boston Food Bank responds to needs of the hungry

Posted by Your Town  December 27, 2013 02:24 PM

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Bypassing the trendy, expensive South End restaurants, some delivery trucks make their way into a deserted section of the neighborhood. Stopping at a warehouse tucked away between Interstate 93 and the Mass. Ave. Connector, they drop off cartons of food to eager volunteers waiting in the 117,000-square-foot distribution center. The volunteers throw out decayed food and sort the rest into neat cardboard boxes that are ready for delivery.

The Greater Boston Food Bank’s warehouse, with shelves expanding on all sides towering ten times higher than a six-foot-tall man, has the capacity to hold 50 million pounds of food. This food is then distributed throughout the greater Boston area to feed the city’s hungry, by way of food pantries and homeless shelters.

While the food stamp program is being cut and hunger in the city of Boston continues to be a concern, the team at the GBFB works to expand its reach.

The GBFB moved to this facility four years ago to support its growing operation—increasing their capacity from 26 million pounds of food to 48 million, said Carol Tienken, chief operating officer of GBFB.

“We’re extremely successful at growing and acquiring the product, and therefore we can feed more people, but there’s always more to do,” said Catherine D’Amato, president and CEO of the GBFB since 1997, sitting in her welcoming office built next to the glass windows of the warehouse.

With recent cuts government-funded food stamps, the burden is on organizations and food banks to step in. People are realizing that there is no “magic bullet,” as D’Amato calls it, to fix the cycles of poverty and hunger.

“Hunger is an outcome of poverty,” she said. “And poverty is complicated—it’s about your income, your education, what family you were born into, privilege. Food is one of those pieces of the puzzle in terms of accessibility and affordability.”

With the recent cuts in the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), or food stamps program, more households are going to be in need of food. SNAP benefits, serving 480,000 households in Massachusetts, are being cut because the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a stimulus package, expired. The size of the cuts vary among households in different situations. For example, a family of four receiving the maximum benefits will now only receive $632 each month, a $36 monthly cut.

“Cuts are happening, and for those families it’s affecting, it’s a significant impact,” she said. “The Greater Boston Food Bank and its network of 550 food pantries are going to have to step up.”

Depending on the outcome of the farm bill deliberation, the cuts over the next ten years could be as high as $40 billion or as low as $4 billion, but the impact to individual human beings will be significant either way, D’Amato said.

“Therefore, they will, as history has shown us anytime there has been this impact on SNAP, go into a secondary system, or the private pantry system,” she said. “You could see the correlation anytime there’s an up or down with SNAP that there’s an up or down in the pantries.”

On Newbury Street, the Church of the Covenant’s food pantry has served more people this November after the cuts than in November of 2012, but they have also seen this increase for the entire year, said the pantry’s organizer Faith Perry.

As most continue their walk on Newbury Street for brunch at Stephanie’s or finish sweating off their morning’s healthy breakfast on a jog, other early-risers turn off the street to Public Alley 436. Lining up at the basement door of the Church of the Covenant, they wait for the small food pantry to open on weekend mornings from 10 a.m. to noon.

When the church’s food pantry first opened its basement doors in 1979, Perry said they never anticipated they would still be around thirty years later.

“We just saw that people were hungry in our Back Bay area and decided to open one,” Perry said. “It has changed dramatically over the past thirty years, though.”

In the 1990s, Perry remembers the majority of the visitors to the pantry were Russian immigrants, but once they figured out how to use what was provided and move themselves out of poverty, the demographic of the visitors shifted to Chinese-speaking immigrants.

Today, the visitors to the food pantry wait in line filling out an identification form, printed in both English and Chinese before receiving their small supply of food from the closet, which holds no more than seven shelving units, half filled with groceries.

“There seems to have been a steady high demand this year. There’s plenty of times there’s not enough food for everyone who needs it,” Perry said, despite the twice-a-month shipments from the GBFB and other donations.

The American Red Cross of Eastern Massachusetts has seen an increase demand in its food pantries since the cuts on Nov. 1, said Kat Powers, spokeswoman for the organization.

However, the Massachusetts branch has also seen the dramatic increase of 25 percent of visitors to their food pantry since April 2009 when the stimulus was started, she said.

Though it is not unusual to see increases even up to 5 percent as populations grow, this jump was a great increase, she said.

“It’s not like hunger is going away in Massachusetts—that’s what these numbers are telling us,” she said.

In the four years that the GBFB has been growing to reach its new building’s capacity, people have been struggling to get back on their feet after the Great Recession.

“It’s a very, very slow recovery,” D’Amato said. “There’s a robust stock market, but people still going to the food pantries—it’s very contrary. The recession threw a lot of people—people who had never been to a food pantry were falling on hard times.”

Though the SNAP cuts are bringing more people into food pantries, there are still many others stuck in the gap between the poverty line and livable wages, which is about $93,000 per year for a family of four in Suffolk County, D’Amato said.

While about half of the people who the food bank serves are being assisted in some way by the government, about half of them are not.

This is the third recession D’Amato has been through during her career, and there are common themes among them.

“If you’re given something [a stimulus], you use it. So it has to be an elastic system,” she said.

Hunger and poverty are persistent problems that are not going to be fixed with any sort of quick fix or stimulus. Recessions will happen, the government will cut its assistance again, but there are systems in place to step in to help.

D’Amato recalls growing up as a child in her Italian household. Her parents had brought themselves into the middle class by taking a risk and opening up their own restaurant.

When she would work at the restaurant, her father would tell her to provide anyone that came to the back door with food. Back then, food banks didn’t exist. People relied on each other’s generosity.

“This is not a new phenomenon,” she said. “We will do what we can. Everyone has a role to play—send a check, volunteer time, food companies donate food.”

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and the Boston University News Service.

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