COVID-19 sends food assistance demand soaring

Baker launches $36m program to bolster supply chain

PUBLIC OFFICIALS are racing to address the skyrocketing number of people relying on food assistance.

Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Governor Karyn Polito announced the launch of a $36 million grant program on Thursday to support initiatives to bolster the state’s food supply system, which has been struggling to deal with a 400 percent increase in applications for supplemental nutritional assistance since the coronavirus pandemic began.

“By supporting projects that increase the resilience of the Commonwealth’s food supply chain, we can ensure that families across the Commonwealth, especially vulnerable populations, have greater access to important nutritional resources,” said Baker at a press conference at the Greater Boston Food Bank.

Catherine D’Amato, the CEO of the Greater Boston Food Bank, said her organization has distributed more food in the last three months (27.5 million pounds) than at any time in its 40-year history. She said the nonprofit’s spending on food rose from $60,000 a month to $3 million a month.

“We’ve had food insecurity for a long time in our state. It’s not just something that popped up due to COVID-19. But it has been exacerbated by COVID-19, like many things have,” D’Amato said.

She said 1 of every 7 people in the state is food insecure and 1 in 5 of those who are food insecure are children. “Those are extraordinary numbers,” she said, noting that Massachusetts has the second highest increase in food insecurity among children due to the pandemic, behind North Dakota.

The Baker administration’s new $36 million initiative is part of a larger $56 million state program that includes $3 million for food banks, $5 million to boost local produce going for the supplemental nutrition assistance program, or SNAP, and $12 million for food boxes for families. The money will also go toward adding local agricultural vendors to the state’s Healthy Incentives Program, which allows families to buy more fruits and vegetables with supplemental nutrition assistance benefits.

Greater Boston Food Bank volunteers package food to meet increased demand for assistance during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by GBFB)

Some organizations eligible to apply for funding under the $36 million grant program include groups working in food production, processing, and distribution; urban farms and community gardens; nonprofits; and school meal programs.  Applications will be reviewed and approved on a rolling basis through September 15.

Amherst Rep. Mindy Domb wants to go even further. She is pushing legislation to appropriate $50 million to support food pantries severely impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak. Her bill would administer a $50,000,000 local food access emergency fund to provide financial assistance to food pantries severely affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. A hearing before the Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities is planned for June 18.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

On the federal level, Sen. Ed Markey led the rest of the state’s congressional delegation on Thursday to ask the US Department of Agriculture to expand the number of retailers that can be part of a SNAP online pilot program. Right now, people receiving supplemental nutrition assistance can only order food from Amazon and Walmart, not local grocery chains.

There are more than 260,000 retailers that participate in the program across the country, including 5,000 retailers in Massachusetts. More options, Markey said, are imperative for the food insecure, especially in Massachusetts, where 780,000 people are receiving food benefits.

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, The Greater Boston Food Bank, The Worcester County Food Bank, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, Project Bread, and Merrimack County Food Bank backed the move in a joint statement, saying it will give people greater flexibility and boost the economies of local communities that are hard hit on all fronts.