Quincy pantries fight rising food insecurity

QUINCY – Shopping carts teeming with groceries line up against the side wall of the pantry. A central stack of shelving divides the storeroom into two aisles. A small but spirited team of volunteers have pre-bundled goods by category. Here are the breads, here dairy; a freezer for meats and fish; next to it fresh produce; nearest the door that opens onto a scorched blacktop stands a triple rack of colorful backpacks. It’s August, and kids need back-to-school supplies.

Books and Backpacks at Interfaith Social Services

Eileen Kelly, the food pantry manager, gathers the troops around for a brief morning meeting. She’s 5 feet tall in her summer dress and white Reeboks. Two purple streaks on either side enliven her iron-grey hair. An Irish twinkle flashes in her eyes as she mixes directives with playful banter. It’s almost 10 a.m., and seven cars have already lined up along the narrow one-way street that bends around Interfaith Social Services in Quincy Center.

Interfaith is one of the largest in a network of food pantries spanning the South Shore that stands as the last line of defense against food insecurity and hunger. Since the pandemic, the strain on its services has increased as its resources have diminished. “It wasn’t until September when we saw the big increase in the number of clients, September of 2020; that’s when we hit a level that’s never really come down since,” said Executive Director Rick Doane.

Increased Utilization of Interfaith Food Pantry

Interfaith served 1074 people in June of this year, 343 more than in June 2019, the summer before the pandemic. This constitutes a 47% increase, indicating a staggering rise in the food insecurity in Quincy and surrounding towns. When compared to data from before the Great Recession, the trend appears even more dire. In June 2007, Interfaith served only 365 people. Since then, dependency on the pantry has increased almost 300%.

Quincy is not alone. A recent study by the Greater Boston Food Bank found that 32% of Bay Staters, or 1.8 million people, experienced food insecurity in 2021. That’s up from 30% in 2020 and just 15% in 2019. Though the economy has rebounded from the crash of 2020, increases in food prices have hit a 40-year high and resulted in “unprecedented need for food assistance.” A similar trend has been observed nationally. Feeding America, the national network of foodbanks, reported a 27% increase in food insecurity in 2020 compared to 2019, and that 1 in 5 American children experienced food insecurity in 2020.

Inflation-driven increase in food insecurity

The rise in food insecurity caused by the pandemic has persisted due to historically high levels of inflation, Doane says. The USDA estimates a 10-11% increase in at-home food costs for 2022, with some items, such as poultry, now 15% more expensive.  The average inflation in food prices from 1914-2022 has been just 3.43%, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics.

A year-on-year comparison of Interfaith’s distribution illustrates the increased need for food relief in the community. Every month since March has seen a significant increase in households relying on Interfaith, with a 19% jump in June.

 Federal and state programs have not entirely filled the gap. SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is “not enough to sustain a family,” Doane says. “The number one item people ask us for is hygiene supplies. You can’t purchase diapers with SNAP benefits. You can’t purchase shampoo. You can’t purchase pads and tampons. These are basic necessities, and SNAP doesn’t cover any of them.”

The state has taken at least one important step to mitigate growing food insecurity. Universal school lunch, implemented during the school closures of spring 2020, was extended through the 2022-23 school year by Governor Charlie Baker on July 28. The program ensures that all students in need of school breakfast or lunch will receive these meals at no cost to their families. If it were to sunset, there could be even more strain on Interfaith’s resources. “I hope the state never rolls it back,” Doane says. “We don’t know what the ramifications of that would be. We used to see in the beginning of summer every year an uptick in the number of families coming into the food pantry because they were bracing for having kids at home.”

Marcy, a volunteer, wheels a cart between two cars as a woman steps out from the driver’s side door. “Please stay in your car, Ma’am,” she says. “You want these in the trunk?” It’s a routine exchange. Before the pandemic, clients would enter the building to collect their goods; but now it’s all pick up and go. The narrow street wasn’t designed for this kind of traffic, and it’s safer if people remain in their vehicles. After she finishes loading, Marcy places two backpacks atop the bundles. “What grade you going into?” A boy and girl look back with round shy eyes through the open hatchback door. “First and third,” their mom calls from the driver’s seat. She drives off, and another car takes her place at the front of the line.   

Across town is another of Quincy’s four food pantries, the Southwest Community Food Center. Part of the integrated service provider QCAP (Quincy Community Action Programs), it shares a beige brick building with a smoke shop. There’s a bus stop directly outside and lots of people passing by. A young woman stops to take a package of diapers from a small shelf outside the door. A middle-aged man steps into the cramped foyer to take a box of muffins from a table loaded with surplus baked goods.

“Whatever is going on in the country, it’s reflected in the food pantry.”

Melinda Alexander, Director of Southwest Community Food Center

The center is directed by Melinda Alexander, a thin woman in her early sixties with dark eyes behind large-frame glasses. Her agency, too, has felt the strain of economic troubles. According to Alexander, the pantry has distributed 25% more food this year than last. “Whatever is going on in the country, it’s reflected in the food pantry,” she says. With soaring grocery costs, people cannot get as far with their limited incomes or SNAP supplement as before, and so they turn to the Southwest Food Center.

The rapidly rising cost of living has exacerbated what Alexander calls “the cliff effect.” “So we bring in somebody,” she says. “We shore them up, they find a job, they’re making good money. OK, but it puts them outside of eligibility for any program. … They were on fuel assistance. They were on SNAP, they got a daycare voucher. Now, when they’re doing really well, they lose it. There’s no support after that.

“That’s it, which is kind of sad because that’s what the goal is — helping people help themselves, to have them move forward, and they do,” Alexander continues. “They’re doing really well. But with the cost of living, and gas, and food, and daycare, they’re taking home nothing. Then what happens to them? Their car breaks down, you know, and it’s a $400 bill. Well, they don’t have discretionary cash.”

But Alexander and her staff are not daunted. QCAP has provided fully integrated services for a long time. When a client comes in needing food relief, Alexander’s agency can also get them assistance with heating, housing, or employment, should they qualify. Social workers like Alexander have developed the skills and know-how to locate resources as they’re needed. “We’ve always been here and we’re a very stable agency,” she said. “We’ve been doing it for 50 years.”

Tacked to a wall of her small office is a thick constellation of photos. Scores of faces smile out over her crowded desk. “All my peeps,” she says with a laugh. “Mostly clients. That’s my family. These are mostly clients and volunteers. There’s lots of people you get to know when you do this job.”

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