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Before, During And After COVID: Hunger Is A “we” Problem

Since 1992, Rachel’s Table in Springfield, Mass. has been focused on reducing food waste and alleviating hunger. Pre COVID-19, over 200 volunteers delivered food that is still healthy but not saleable, due to being close to expiration, leftover in a farm field, or in any other way unwanted. This healthy and edible food was delivered to nearly 50 agencies serving the food insecure in Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin Counties. Western Massachusetts, and Hampden County in particular, has one of the highest food insecurity rates in the state, according to a Feeding America study in 2020. Special food purchasing programs like shelf-stable milk, protein and Thanksgiving meals complement the donated food to provide greater variety and support better nutrition.

Enter COVID-19. Food, water, and shelter are essential, and those providing these services, such as grocery workers, food rescue programs and food banks, were deemed essential to continue operating while most of us were sheltering in place. During the early stages of the pandemic, the food supply chain was broken, or at best unpredictable, and at the same time unemployment was skyrocketing. The pandemic has led to Feeding America projecting that 54 million Americans may become food insecure. Families and individuals that had never done so before began waiting in lines at food pantries.  Now, 1-in-4 children are food insecure.

During this time, Rachel’s Table needed to completely change operations. Our volunteers are predominantly over the age of 60, and we were not willing to risk the health and safety of our volunteers or others in the community. We expanded our outreach to additional local partners with the capacity to recover what food was still available to donate, and we reinforced our purchase programs by introducing the Healthy Community Emergency Food Fund to deliver healthy protein, produce and milk to an increased in the number of agencies. In addition, we began feeding frontline healthcare workers as an effort to thank them for putting their own lives on the line. We sponsored a virtual 5K walk/run which allowed anyone in the world to get fit while fighting hunger. Our efforts included partnering with New England Dairy to distribute farm-fresh milk and distributing supermarket gift cards to families to support food security as well enabling individuals and families a choice to purchase culturally and personally desired food. We added more agencies to our roster.

Hunger was already growing before the pandemic, and now the increasing gap between abundance and need is being widely experienced by more people, including the working poor, single mothers and people of color disproportionately affected.

We can continue to “feed the need” but will the story, or system, change to make this inequity less large, or less harmful?   Are we considering this a “we” problem, rather than an “us” vs “them”?

Rachel’s Table has been finding ways to support the eradication rather than just the mere alleviation of hunger. Judy Ingis, one of the founders of Rachel’s Table, often states that our main goal is to make ourselves redundant. What are we doing? No solution can rest on one set of shoulders. This indeed is a “we” problem and it will need a “we” solution.

We are partnering with the Coalition to End Hunger to advocate for policy changes to support greater food security in our region. Fighting for causes like fair wages is also an important step to recognizing the effect that the growing income gap has on so many of us. In our gleaning program, where volunteers who are typically not food insecure pick unharvested crops for donation to agencies feeding the food insecure, we are also inviting the residential programs we serve to come out to glean – for themselves, or others. We don’t have to continue a one-way assumption of who can “give back.”

Our Teen Board, a dedicated group of mostly high school youth, whose mission it is to educate themselves and others about childhood food insecurity in our area, has begun working with other local teen leaders in communities of color who have created their own organic gardens in the urban areas in which they live, some of which are considered “food deserts”. The oft-used quote of this pandemic is that “we are in this together.” We are, although differently. However, together, we can find a way out of hunger. It is upon us all to find that way.

This article was published in the October newsletter of the Provider’s Council

“Feeding the need” and “changing the story” are terms used by the Franklin County Hunger Task Force and reference Andrew Fisher’s Big Hunger, 2017

Jodi P. Falk, PhD, Director of Rachel’s Table, the food rescue program of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts

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