Lynn and Peabody see rise in food insecurity

Volunteers at My Brothers Table in Lynn. (Olivia Falcigno)

The Greater Boston Food Bank’s annual statewide report found that in 2022, 33 percent of Massachusetts households experienced food insecurity, which is defined by the federal Department of Agriculture as a “household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”

It was a 14-point increase from 2019, when 19 percent of households experienced food insecurity.

In Lynn and Peabody, the statewide growth in food insecurity has been reflected in a surge of demand for food assistance.

My Brother’s Table (MBT), a soup kitchen in Lynn, has served more than 6 million meals since its founding in 1982. According to Executive Director Dianne Kuzia Hills, around half of those were served after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have never seen the numbers that we’ve seen for the past three years,” Kuzia Hills said.

The increased numbers of those experiencing food insecurity is a “multi-layered” issue, she said.

“I think a couple things have happened. Certainly, the pandemic kind of has lasting effects on the economy,” Kuzia Hills said. “There’s other things related to hunger, besides economics, and one thing we see a lot of are people who have really limited facilities for cooking food.”

MBT did a survey in 2022 to learn more about the living and economic situations of the people it serves, she said.

“They had problems with rodents or bugs, and they couldn’t store food in their homes or they were living in a doubled-up situation where there weren’t a lot of kitchen privileges,” Kuzia Hills said. “It was pretty shocking to me how many people don’t actually have access to be able to cook and store food.”

Keeping up with the rising demand for MBT services has been “challenging,” she said. Kuzia Hills said the nonprofit kitchen relies entirely on donations.

“We have to purchase more food than we’ve ever purchased, and I’ve had to hire extra chefs, extra cleaning, extra everything just to kind of keep up with the demand,” Kuzia Hills said.

But she has also seen throughout the past few years how “incredibly generous” the community in Lynn has been. She said they give their time and money to help those who are food insecure.

“It is pretty astounding to see how people who, maybe they don’t even have that much themselves, are so generous and so thoughtful about their neighbors that are experiencing food insecurity and hunger,” Kuzia Hills said. “It really is pretty moving to see that.”

In Peabody, Carolina Trujillo, the executive director of Citizens Inn, an organization that works with families and individuals affected by food insecurity and the housing crisis, said that her organization saw a significant increase in people using its food pantries and community meals.

“Despite the drastic and steady increase of need, it doesn’t translate to more food or more donations,” Trujillo, who is also the publisher of La Voz, said. “People assume we’re out of the pandemic, so the need is no longer there.”

Citizens Inn is seeing more people use the food pantries, which were designed to be supplemental, as their main source of food. This is the result of many different issues, she said.

“Inflation, the cost of living, everything else going up really affects the bottom line to be able to provide food and money for their families,” Trujillo said.

Many think of food insecurity as a “foreign concept,” she said.

“But in reality, we are all part of a community and we need to help each other in order to thrive,” Trujillo said. “When we’re thinking about a state as rich as Massachusetts, and we have one-in-three people being food insecure, we really have to rethink how great of a state we are.”

In Lynn, it is not just nonprofit organizations that are working to address food insecurity. The city has invested almost $1.3 million of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds into food security, according to Lynn’s ARPA website.

$198,955 went toward The Food Project, which has two community programs in the city — Build-a-Garden and Lynn Farmers Markets. The Food Project enhances food access and cultivates community, according to its website.

$350,000 was directed to an initiative promoting healthy living, green spaces, and building social capital.

“The initiative will promote access to quality food and support the creation of educational programs that encourage healthy living and eating,” Lynn’s ARPA website said.

The New Lynn Coalition, an organization attempting to address income inequality, received $365,700 in ARPA funds. Throughout the past three years, the coalition has delivered free and fresh groceries to food-insecure people.

“Funding will enable the coalition to acquire vehicles and technology that will increase capacity and provide access to food sources previously inaccessible,” the website reads.

$379,810 went to Phoenix Food Hub, which provides nutrition support to the people of Lynn.

Lynn Public Health Coordinator and Food Security Task Force Leader Norris Guscott strongly encouraged Lynners to check out Phoenix Food Hub.

“Phoenix Food Hub is the one-stop hub that addresses the social and clinical determinants that’s linked to food insecurity,” Guscott said.

Guscott said the hub has a teaching kitchen, food pantry, food-delivery area, and even a data system linked to Lynn Community Health Center.

Lynn is strong when it comes to food security, he said, but there is still a lot of work to do.

“If it were perfect, then we wouldn’t need a Food Security Task Force. The governor wouldn’t be allocating the funding that she is to food-security programming in the state,” Guscott said. “But I feel confident in saying that our food-security network in Lynn is resilient and we have the foresight, and the passion, and we are building networks and connections needed to keep that going.”

Mayor Jared Nicholson described improving food accessibility and affordability in Lynn as a priority.

“Being there for our residents and providing the resources necessary to ensure they are healthy is a team effort and we’re grateful to our partners focused on tackling food insecurity across the community,” Nicholson said. “We encourage residents to reach out to our Public Health Department for any assistance on food access.”

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