BOSTON (SHNS) – During the height of the COVID-19 crisis, the Healthy Waltham organization regularly helped about 700 families access a stable source of nutritious food.
The need has not decreased much since the peak: to this day, the group still has about 600 families in its support network, executive director Myriam Michel said during a virtual panel on Wednesday.
Michel was one of several nonprofit leaders to participate in a forum with Congresswoman Katherine Clark about the immense food security challenges Massachusetts faces five months into a global public health and economic crisis that quickly sent scores of workers scrambling for jobless benefits. Speakers warned that government leaders need to direct additional resources to help weather the storm and reduce stigma.
“A food bank is only a Band-Aid for the problem,” Michel said. “We will not be able to keep producing at this level for quite some time. No emergency room could have so many ICU beds because that’s not what it was made for.”
Massachusetts had the worst unemployment rate in the nation in June, the most recent month with state-level data available, at 17.4 percent.
Access to food has become increasingly difficult for many families during the crisis. Clark said during Wednesday’s event that one in seven Massachusetts residents are struggling with hunger.
The Greater Boston Food Bank has distributed 40 million meals through this point in the year, a nearly 60 percent increase over the same time last year, according to GBFB chief operating officer Carol Tienken.
Impacts fall disproportionately on low-income and nonwhite communities. A July survey conducted by the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition found that nearly 60 percent of immigrant households reported food insecurity or had to rely on at least one source of support, whether it be a public program or charity.
“They start with disadvantages to begin with, and then the crisis added another layer of challenges,” said Eva Millona, MIRA’s chief executive officer.
State leaders have targeted food security as a priority, with the Baker administration launching a $36 million grant program and millions more included in a COVID-19 spending bill the Legislature approved.
At the federal level, though, efforts to pass another round of wide-ranging stimulus spending have been unsuccessful. The Democrat-controlled House approved a more than $3 trillion bill in May and Senate Republicans unveiled a roughly $1 trillion counteroffer late last month, but talks have bogged down.
Clark slammed the Republican approach, saying their bill would increase funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously known as food stamps, by only $250,000 for the whole country.
She also said rhetoric from Republicans and the White House has stigmatized public food benefit programs, leaving many families uncomfortable seeking the aid for which they qualify.
“Their campaign of fear has been a successful one, and it really is to great harm to families who are in need,” Clark said.
Tienken praised the Baker administration’s approach, noting that the creation of a food insecurity task force demonstrates recognition that “the infrastructure here is fragile at best” and that food banks will likely need long-term help to continue supporting families in need.
Toward the end of the event, Millona aimed a closing message at Clark.
“As the House proceeds with another stimulus, please advocate that it’s all inclusive and provides for all taxpayers and working families,” she said.