By Andrew Morehouse
We’ve all been to the supermarkets. Households are stocking up on food in response to coronavirus (COVID-19). But let’s not forget there are tens of thousands of individuals across Western Mass. who can’t even get to a supermarket — elders, people with disabilities, and households who must rely on unreliable public transportation. Others can, but they can’t even afford to buy enough food to feed their families, much less stock up for two weeks’ worth as suggested by public officials.
To make matters worse, many of these households have children whose schools are now closed and are not providing essential school breakfasts and lunches that so many families rely on to feed their children day in and day out. Some but not all schools are preparing meals for children to pick up at schools or at ‘summer’ meal sites (check out www.meals4kids.org/summer).
The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and its network of 174 local feeding partners across all four counties — Berkshire, Franklin, Hampshire, and Hampden — continue to operate as we do year in and year out, providing healthy food to the most vulnerable in our communities. We are all establishing measures to prevent transmission of coronavirus, such as social distancing, hand washing, and wearing protective gloves to ensure that our visitors can receive healthy food safely.
Many food pantries are now pre-packaging food to hand out, often outdoors, in order to minimize contact. Most, if not all, of the meal sites are now making meals to go, which patrons can pick up and take with them. If you are in need of food assistance, visit our website, www.foodbankwma.org/get-help, for a listing of all local feeding sites, and be sure to call prior to visiting to make sure they are open.
We’ve instituted similar safety measures at our biweekly and monthly Mobile Food Bank.
Twenty-one of the 26 sites continue to operate in ‘food deserts’ where access to healthy food is nonexistent. We’ve instituted similar safety measures at senior centers where volunteers distribute bags of groceries to thousands of elders monthly at our 51 brown-bag sites. Many remain open, and we are also working with those that have closed to seek permission to continue to distribute food in their parking lots.
Right now, we have enough food to distribute through our vast regional emergency food network. This is likely to change as the coronavirus persists. You can help by donating — every dollar you give provides four meals. We also have enough volunteers, but this is also likely to change. Please visit www.foodbankwma.org/volunteer for updates.
In addition to distributing food, we are working with our partners across the Commonwealth and nationally to advocate for public food assistance. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) continues to have the greatest impact in nourishing those who receive this federal benefit. Most SNAP recipients are children, elders, people with disabilities, and individuals working part-time and on minimum-wage incomes. SNAP provides nine meals for every meal provided by food banks. And SNAP is proven to be the single most powerful economic stimulus. This is no time to be cutting SNAP benefits; in fact, we should be increasing them.
Now is the time for all of us to band together as a community to ensure the health and food security of everyone.
Andrew Morehouse is executive director of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts Inc. in Hatfield.