The Changing Face Of Hunger

By Toni Waterman

Nov. 10, 2011

Watch the segment that aired on Nov. 9 on WGBH's Greater Boston.

BOSTON — According to a Greater Boston Food Bank study, more and more people in Massachusetts are relying on assistance from food pantries, shelters and soup kitchens. The study shows that 47 percent of people in Eastern Massachusetts don't qualify for food stamps, but still need help making ends meet. And chronic unemployment is leaving a growing number of middle class families flocking to their local food pantry.

Martha, who asked that her last name not be used, is picking through a pile of half-green, half-yellow bananas. "Nice! Nice! Nice!," she exclaimed, picking up a bunch and tucking them into a bag.

Like so many Americans, it's her weekly shopping routine. But for Martha, this isn't her neighborhood grocery store. It's her neighborhood food pantry.

"I never imagined needing or wanting or relying on a food pantry for resources, but I do know it's been a lifesaver for us," she said.

Martha and her family of four were once part of the middle class. But for the past four years, she's been in and out of The Open Door food pantry in Gloucester — more often than not after her husband lost his full-time job as a graphic designer. Soon after, she lost hers as a communications consultant and the family fell from their comfortable perch in the middle class.

"We're at a point where we've really tapped out our resources and are having to dig deeper and look in some new ways to get help. Everything from how to keep our home and things like utilities and trying to get help getting oil into our tank for the winter."

Martha and her family now find themselves reliant on the generosity of others. And they're not alone. The United States Department of Agriculture says one-in-nine people in the Greater Boston area are "food insecure," meaning they don't know if they'll have enough food for their next meal.

Up in Gloucester, Julie LaFontaine stands behind a counter, "We have rice! We have pasta! Prunes — who can live without prunes?"

LaFontaine is the Executive Director of the Open Door food pantry. She says in the past two years, she's seen a 28-percent increase in the number of people walking through her door.

"Families can come once every seven days. It used to be every 14 days," says LaFontaine. "But when the economy turned south a few years ago, we stepped up to the plate to make sure families that were struggling would be able to come once a week."

She thought it would be a temporary fix, but two years later, the policy is still in place. And the need isn't unique to the Open Door. Food pantries statewide have seen a 23-percent increase in visitors too. LaFontaine says what has also changed are the demographics.

"A growing population that we've seen are people in their mid-to-late 50s. They're not ready to retire by any means, and yet they've found themselves when they thought they'd be winding up a career, actually going out and looking for a new job."

As for Martha, her husband got lucky. He recently landed a full-time job, but she says, that doesn't mean they're out of the woods yet.

"We're in the recovery stage. I'm looking for work. So we're trying to piece together from here and like so many other families, we need two incomes to survive."

Just to survive, never mind thrive.



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