Inflation, aid cuts driving greater need for food aid in region

Robin Diamond hands berries to Isabelle L’Huillier to put on a shelf while Judith Souweine sorts fruit at the Amherst Survival Center’s Fresh Food Distribution, which is open on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from noon to 3 p.m.

Robin Diamond hands berries to Isabelle L’Huillier to put on a shelf while Judith Souweine sorts fruit at the Amherst Survival Center’s Fresh Food Distribution, which is open on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from noon to 3 p.m. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Alan Callaham, the community meals coordinator at the Amherst Survival Center, prepares lunch, which is served Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

Alan Callaham, the community meals coordinator at the Amherst Survival Center, prepares lunch, which is served Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Marcus Opalenik, a pantry assistant at the Amherst Survival Center, fills bags with produce for the curbside delivery service, which goes to 500 households.

Marcus Opalenik, a pantry assistant at the Amherst Survival Center, fills bags with produce for the curbside delivery service, which goes to 500 households. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Ashley Kramer is co-executive director of Stone Soup Café in Greenfield.

Ashley Kramer is co-executive director of Stone Soup Café in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Volunteers prepare food at Stone Soup Cafe on Friday before the Saturday meal in Greenfield.

Volunteers prepare food at Stone Soup Cafe on Friday before the Saturday meal in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Ashley Kramer is co-executive director of Stone Soup Café in Greenfield.

Ashley Kramer is co-executive director of Stone Soup Café in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By SCOTT MERZBACH and JULIAN MENDOZA

Staff Writers

Published: 09-17-2023 12:24 PM

Back in April, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts distributed 1 million pounds of food to its 172 food pantries and meal sites, a sizable increase from the 750,000 pounds of food that went to the same locations just two months earlier.

While the 94,062 individuals served in April was short of the 103,049 individuals who depended on the food assistance network in August 2022, the 14% increase from 82,279 individuals served in February gives a hint at the uptick that has likely continued this spring and summer, showing that food insecurity remains a challenge. Some 9.2% of residents in the state’s four westernmost counties, or 76,253 people, are considered food insecure.

“We believe the need is always greater than what can be provided through the food assistance network,” said Andrew Morehouse, the food bank’s executive director.

“What I can tell you anecdotally is that our numbers are going up,” agreed Franklin County Community Meals Program Executive Director Kim Croce, whose organization offers four free community meal sites in Greenfield, Orange, Turners Falls and Northfield. “The pantry is seeing more and more new people in addition to the regulars who have been coming for years.”

One issue has been fewer donations from local farmers, a direct impact of the wet weather and flooding that has taken a toll on agriculture. These conditions are more prevalent than ever due to climate change, according to Croce.

“If you look at what’s been going on year after year, whether it’s drought or too much rain or a frost … farms in general are facing more of it now,” she said. “All it takes is one bad storm to wipe out a whole crop.”

On the demand side, a convergence of reasons have likely caused the need to grow again, like in March when people were concerned over losing a pandemic-era bonus for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

“The simplest answer to this question is a combination of the rising cost of basic essentials and the end of pandemic safety nets such as the child tax credit, the eviction moratorium and COVID SNAP,” said Lev BenEzra, executive director of the Amherst Survival Center. “Food costs have risen even more dramatically than the already very high levels of inflation all of us are seeing, and wages, especially in lower-wage jobs, simply aren’t keeping pace.”

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Mystery shrouds case of injured moose euthanized in Sunderland
$338K fraud drains town coffers in Orange
Charlemont planners approve special permit for Hinata Mountainside Resort
Greenfield Police Logs: April 20 to May 1, 2024
With ZBA approval, Ja’Duke one step closer to second location in Greenfield
High Schools: Frontier softball powers its way past South Hadley and into Class B semis

Morehouse said federal assistance programs were still active through last summer, and between their expiration and inflationary pressures, more people are having a hard time.

“Inflation is still higher than wage increases,” Morehouse said.

Croce agreed, citing improvements to SNAP accessibility as her No. 1 wish relative to methods of combating food insecurity. Currently, those making up to 125% of income defined by the official Federal Poverty Guidelines qualify for SNAP benefits, a threshold Croce deemed far too restrictive.

“If I could wave a magic wand, the income level for SNAP would be doubled for every single category,” she said.

She added that she would love to see more programs prioritize healthy food within the SNAP landscape. One program she highlighted as an example of this was the Massachusetts Healthy Incentives Program (HIP), which puts money back on your Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card when you use SNAP to buy fruits and vegetables from local HIP farm vendors.

Even with the school year underway and Massachusetts providing free meals to schoolchildren, local sites like the survival centers aren’t expecting any drop in the demand for food aid.

“Our mission is to alleviate hunger, but we’re never going to do that because there’s always going to be people in a bad situation needing food,” Croce added.

One way Greenfield-based pay-what-you-can restaurant and free store Stone Soup Café is working to keep up with demand is applying for more grants and spearheading more fundraisers.

“We are thinking about ways to invest to sustain the amount of growth the occurred since the pandemic,” said Stone Soup Café Co-Executive Director Ashley Kramer.

Kramer explained while the programs offered at Stone Soup Café may not end poverty and hunger, the “philosophy of abundance” the cafe follows brings a different type of nourishment and creates a resilient community.

“At Stone Soup we try to practice what we call a philosophy of abundance, that there is enough to share and feel generous,” Kramer said. “It feels challenging now as those same inflation rates effect us, so the dollar we spend to purchase food isn’t going as far.”

A need for volunteers and spearheading fundraisers

Like the area’s survival centers and food pantries, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts depends on volunteers. People can go to foodbankwma.org to learn more.

During September, which is Hunger Action Month, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts is sponsoring Will Bike 4 Food on Sept. 24, continuing in its longtime host community of Hatfield. Financial donations also continue to mean that for every $1, three meals can be supplied.

The Amherst Survival Center this month is aiming to add one sustaining donor every day, with each of the first 30 new sustained donations to be matched with a $100 donation from an anonymous donor, who has also committed to a $500 bonus donation. For the public, there is also the ongoing Hike for Hunger campaign, with a $25 registration fee.

“We are seeking volunteers to help across a range of roles and shifts, with a particular need for people to help with stocking and pantry organization,” BenEzra said.

The Franklin County Community Meals Program will be holding food drives and “beyond” food drives — drives that also accept donations of toiletries and other amenities — around the region throughout September.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com. Julian Mendoza can be reached at jmendoza@recorder.com. Reporter Bella Levavi contributed to this article.