Need for food aid in western Massachusetts is rising

HATFIELD, Massachusetts (WWLP) — Across western Massachusetts, food pantries and meal sites are reporting an increased number of residents visiting their sites for food aid.

Food insecurity has risen due to the ongoing inflation of food and gasoline. The Western Massachusetts Food Bank says the trend is heading in the opposite direction after a gradual decline to pre-pandemic levels.

“In the first two months of 2022, food insecurity had returned to pre-pandemic levels thanks to the astonishing response from the community and government to the pandemic,” said Andrew Morehouse, executive director of the Food Bank.

Courtesy of The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, Inc.

By February, a total of 81,623 persons had continued to seek food aid. That number is lower than the peak of 124,592 people in November 2020. “We cannot be satisfied with the old normal. We need to do more to solve food insecurity once and for all. And with food insecurity rising again, the Food Bank will remain there for our neighbors in need of food aid,” said Morehouse.

For The Food Bank and three other regional food banks that supply food to local food pantries and meal venues across the Commonwealth, food supply is the moving target. The state of the economy and the impact on food insecurity determine the amount of stocks. “As the economy moves south, the food supply increases from the state and federal governments,” said Shirley Del Rio, director of food distribution. “In 2021, the federal Community Food Assistance Program (CFAP) and unprecedented private subsidies to purchase food were the immediate response to the pandemic.”

The Food Bank is providing two million fewer meals, despite a declining number of people in need of food aid over the past nine months. A 20% decrease was due to the discontinuation of CFAP packaging for fresh vegetables from local farmers. Another part of the decline came from food bought by the Food Bank from limited grants due to the shutdown of the Massachusetts COVID-19 Relief Fund.

As food insecurity rises again, the Food Bank is gaining food purchases from the community. Now that the local growing season is near, the Food Bank can expect the supply of local vegetables to increase. Every year, dozens of local farmers buy about a million pounds of fresh vegetables. Support from the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program (MEFAP) helps make these purchases possible.

More than half of the entire inventory is made up of MEFAP and federal funds from the United States Department of Agriculture. While the rest will come from local supermarkets, farmers and other sources.

A challenge that was also present was the insufficient storage space at the Food Bank facility in Hatfield. Del Rio added, “We’ve had to turn down the equivalent of more than a million meals because we didn’t have a place to store it.”

The Food Bank had first completed a new upcoming food distribution center and headquarters in Chicopee, expected to be twice the size of the old location. The Food Bank plans to sell their current building when they move into the new distribution center next summer.

Until then, the Food Bank will be confronted with rising operating, transport and food costs. “We pay 24% more for fresh vegetables from local and national suppliers,” explains Del Rio. “We expect increases of 20% in the future for non-perishable dry goods. Freight costs alone have increased by 42%.”

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