Listen to what food insecure people say they need

Survey finds proximity and choice are two key problems

NEARLY 20 PERCENT of Massachusetts households struggle to access food — a number that has more than doubled during the pandemic. It’s a serious and growing issue, and there’s no shortage of proposed solutions. But to address this problem, we must first properly diagnose it, and there’s one group of people who know better than anyone how to improve food support systems: people who are themselves food insecure. So we asked them. And the results were clear and consistent.

In a survey of over 500 food insecure people across Massachusetts, two common themes emerged: proximity and choice. Across all demographics, those struggling to provide fresh, healthy food for themselves and their families pointed to these same two areas when asked how they could better be served by our food aid systems. By trusting people, bringing food directly to those who need it, and by giving them the freedom and agency to select food they will actually eat, we can build a more effective model for addressing food insecurity.

Throughout the survey, people consistently pointed to logistical hurdles preventing them from utilizing food pantries. Multiple respondents noted they did not have a car or driver’s license, saying that picking up a box of food and carrying it home, or having to transport it using public transportation, was too difficult. Others noted that older residents and people with disabilities often cannot get to food distribution sites.

While there are programs aimed at addressing this issue of proximity, they are not reaching those who need them most. Thirty percent of respondents said they have received food through a mobile food pantry, while 80 percent said they would be interested in such a program. Similarly, 29 percent said they have gotten food through a discounted food distribution program at a grocery store, while 77 percent said they would be interested in doing so.

This data makes clear that these programs need more targeted outreach to the communities they’re designed to serve, and also that we must explore additional ways to shift food distribution from brick-and-mortar food pantries to places people already visit in their day-to-day lives, such as schools, grocery stores, libraries, and houses of worship. Respondents likewise noted difficulty in getting information and support in signing up for government aid programs such as P-EBT, WIC, and SNAP. Why not accompany food distribution at these sites with trained staff to sign people up on-the-spot for these programs?

In addition to increased proximity, food insecure individuals reiterated consistently that lack of choice in the food available to them is a top concern. One respondent noted that they are unable to eat most food from food pantries due to allergies. Others pointed to cultural preferences and dietary restrictions that limit the foods they eat. And when asked what policies or programs would be most helpful, many pointed to more direct food funds as a solution.

Again, there is evidence that existing programs are making a positive impact. Ninety-one percent of people who have signed up for SNAP say it is worthwhile, and 89 percent of those receiving SNAP say the program has helped them access more and better food. And the recent actions by the Biden Administration to increase the monthly SNAP benefit and provide cash every month to parents through the Child Tax Credit are already reducing levels of child poverty and malnutrition.

In addition to raising awareness of these programs and making them permanent, we must explore more ways to provide increased flexibility. What if food banks gave out grocery store gift cards instead of food boxes? Not only would this empower people to purchase food they will actually eat, but it would also eliminate logistical hurdles to food access and overhead costs like staffing, transportation, and storage. Similarly, what if we took the bureaucracy out of government aid programs and provided direct cash assistance to food insecure families? Programs such as this have been piloted around the country, including here in Chelsea, with compelling results.

Meet the Author

Jill Shah

President, Shah Foundation
Food insecurity is a serious problem, but it is not an insurmountable one. We know the barriers to access and we know how to overcome them. The only question is whether our leaders trust their constituents enough to make them part of the solution.

Jill Shah is president of the Shah Family Foundation, a Boston-based nonprofit committed to ensuring everyone has access to the fundamentals of well-being. The foundation, working with Chelsea, manages the Chelsea Eats program.