Worcester County Food Pantry: feeding Worcester since 1982

By Jean McMurray, executive director, Worcester County Food Bank, with Liz Sheehan Castro, project manager, Hunger-Free & Healthy

As the door opened into the third floor apartment, the woman’s smile along with the warmth of her kitchen greeted me. I introduced myself and handed her a carefully covered meal while wishing her a Happy Thanksgiving. Before I turned to go back down the three flights of stairs I had just climbed, she offered me a Kennedy half-dollar as a tip in gratitude for the Thanksgiving dinner I had brought her. I declined the tip and thanked her explaining that I was a volunteer delivering meals for Catholic Charities. As I started down the back stairs, I felt relief knowing that this elder woman had a warm home, food, and people that cared about her.

She was one of the dozen or so people I would meet throughout the morning as I traveled city streets and neighborhoods delivering meals. Hours later as I sat down to enjoy a Thanksgiving Day dinner with my own family, the experience came with heightened awareness and appreciation for what I had as well as for the people I met who were enjoying their dinners and for those who cooked the wonderful meals and organized the volunteers.

Delivering dinners on Thanksgiving and Christmas to elders and others who were alone or homebound was something that I did and looked forward to during the years I lived in Worcester. Ensuring people had a nutritious meal at the holidays felt like an extension of the mission and service I was involved with through my full-time job at the Worcester County Food Bank, an organization I knew little about until I started working there in 1995.

The Food Bank is the regional hunger-relief organization for Worcester County. It alleviates hunger by collecting wholesome donated food from a variety of sources including local, regional, and national food distributors and retailers, farmers, community food drives, the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program funded by the state government, and the United States Department of Agriculture. This food is distributed to a network of partner agencies that have programs for feeding people, including food pantries, community meal sites, and shelters.

The Food Bank began as a program of Catholic Charities in 1982 as an immediate source of food for agencies providing emergency assistance to the growing number of people who were homeless or unemployed and hungry because of the economic recession. That first year, the Food Bank distributed 662,000 pounds of donated food to 120 agencies that helped feed 20,000 people.
From the very beginning, the Food Bank has had the privilege of working with and being part of a community that cares about its neighbors in need. This dedicated community includes partner agencies, volunteers, financial supporters, food donors, and other like-minded organizations that collaborate every day to help people.

Twenty-eight years later, the goodwill of the Food Bank community has provided over 75 million pounds of donated food.

Between 2008 and 2010, hunger hit closer to home for more households with children, working people, those who are unemployed or underemployed as well as senior citizens living on fixed incomes. I am sure that most people know at least one friend, neighbor, or family member who is struggling because of the recession and the slow economic recovery. In 2010 alone, the Food Bank and its network of 163 agencies distributed 5.6 million pounds of food, valued at $9 million, to help feed over 85,000 people, including 31,000 children. This is enough food for approximately 11,800 meals every day.

With each passing year since 1982, the Food Bank distributes more donated food to its network of partner agencies that assist people in chronic need of food because they lack the financial resources necessary to be well fed and healthy. In 1991, the Food Bank became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization independent of Catholic Charities as well as a certified member of Feeding America, the nation’s network of over 200 regional food banks.

Between 1982 and 2002, the mindset and daily operations of the Food Bank focused on distributing as much food as possible to as many agencies and people as possible. To accomplish that goal efficiently and effectively, the Food Bank purchased a 37,000 square-foot warehouse on Route 9 in Shrewsbury in 1997, which increased its capacity to handle and distribute donated food, recruit volunteers, and provide the following:

· A Nutrition Education program that provides food safety training to partner agency staff and volunteers, as well as Food Bank staff to ensure safe handling, storage, and preparation of donated food.

· A Second Serving program that collects prepared and perishable food from local supermarkets and farms and delivers it directly to agencies.

· A full service kitchen that prepares and delivers 450 nutritious meals a week to the Kids Café program at the Boys & Girls Club in Worcester.

Amidst the growth in operations and services, the Food Bank reached a turning point in 2002 as we observed our 20th Anniversary. In light of that milestone we asked ourselves, where did we want the Food Bank to be in the next 5, 10, 20 years? In answering that question, we realized that while a bigger food bank with more donated food would help people in the short-term, it was not a permanent solution to hunger. Although we knew the Food Bank had to continue supporting the emergency feeding network and people with donated food, we also knew that to solve the problem of hunger the Food Bank would have to take a leadership role and become more involved with ending hunger through long-term solutions.

This change in our perspective was reflected in the adoption of the Food Bank’s new mission statement:

To engage, educate, and lead Worcester County in creating a hunger-free community
We set out to operationalize this statement by building upon our core competency in food distribution and our community partnerships to develop a stronger anti-hunger network with a competency in anti-hunger advocacy.

The Food Bank brought its partner agencies together to form the Worcester County Hunger-Free Network with whom we share the mission and vision of feeding hungry people today while working to create hunger-free communities of tomorrow.

The Hunger-Free Network is organized into regional service areas or quadrants and together we have implemented best practices in food distribution, data collection, nutrition assistance referrals, and communication. As a Network, we also use our collective voice to advocate at local, state, and federal levels with a variety of community leaders for solutions to hunger through public policy. Over the years, we have successfully advocated for state funding for the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program and the 2008 federal Farm Bill, which supported income eligible households with a higher monthly food stamp benefit, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The Food Bank’s evolution has been dynamic in the years since our purchase of our warehouse on Route 9 in Shrewsbury. The types of food donated change over time and the Food Bank positions itself to adapt to those changes in pro-active ways. Fresh produce is available year-round and includes partnerships with local family-owned farms that donate fresh fruits and vegetables that the Food Bank picks up and delivers directly to agency sites where households participate in fresh produce distributions.

We also believe that providing good information to households about other food resources is a service and goes hand in hand with providing them with good food. When an individual or family receives food assistance from the Food Bank and its partner agencies, they also receive the brochure, Massachusetts Food & Nutrition Programs, containing information on how to apply for a range of federally funded nutrition programs including SNAP, School Breakfast and Lunch, Summer Food, and the Women, Infants and Children program (WIC). These programs can help increase access to healthy food and support households in becoming more food secure.

Another defining moment in the Food Bank’s history occurred in 2005, when the Food Bank and its Hunger-Free Network co-sponsored a Community Forum on Hunger with Congressman James McGovern, in which over 175 community leaders in business, education, local and state government attended. One initiative that evolved from that forum was the creation of the Worcester Advisory Food Policy Council in 2006 by Worcester Mayor Timothy Murray. The Council is a collaboration of representatives from agriculture, education, healthcare, government, as well as anti-hunger groups who contribute leadership, resources, and skills towards the creation of systemic and sustainable solutions to hunger. Today the Council is co-directed by Dennis Irish of Saint Vincent Hospital and Jean McMurray of the Food Bank.

From the beginning, the Council focused on taking action and having an impact. Our first priority was to expand the Summer Food Service Program throughout the City of Worcester for youth under the age of 18. Working together as a Council maximized our efforts and we succeeded in expanding the number of sites from 13 to 22 that provided 59,000 meals, an increase of 22,000 meals compared to the summer of 2005.

Our success captured the attention of the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts who invited us to apply for a Synergy Initiative that provides funding for partnership-based projects that target public health issues with integrated, comprehensive strategies. Since 2007, The Health Foundation has provided technical assistance and funding for the development and implementation of the Council’s Hunger-Free & Healthy Project.

On any given Tuesday evening, the third floor of the Fanning Building is awash with lively chatter and the smells of a home-cooked meal. One recent evening, roasted vegetables with whole wheat pasta was on the menu and a group of ten Worcester adults were filling up their plates and sprinkling freshly grated parmesan cheese on top. Everyone took their seat around a big table and talked about what they liked about the meal, what they could do differently at home, and what other healthy options could accompany this meal. This is the scene of the Eating Right Cooking Class.

The Hunger-Free & Healthy Project has teamed up with the nationally recognized Cooking Matters Program to offer free, nutrition-based cooking classes to low-income adults, teens, and children in Worcester. Since the partnership began in 2008, over one-hundred Worcester adults and children have participated in these 6-week long hands-on series of classes.

The Eating Right Cooking Classes are only one way in which the Hunger-Free & Healthy Project is working to increase healthy food access and end hunger in Worcester. The project has brought together an array of partners including the Worcester Public Schools, UMass Medical and UMass Memorial, the Regional Environmental Council, Saint Vincent Hospital, the Worcester County Food Bank, Project Bread, the United Way, the Massachusetts Public Health Association, Congressman McGovern’s office, the Department of Transitional Assistance and more. The goal of the group is in the name: create a hunger-free and healthy Worcester.

Because hunger is a complex issue that affects an individual, then a family and ultimately a community, the response needs to be comprehensive. Hunger-Free & Healthy has developed an array of strategies, which include SNAP application assistance and advocacy; implementing Farmers’ Markets in low-income areas; improving the nutritious quality of school meals; increasing the number of educational gardens in public schools; offering nutrition-based cooking and budgeting classes; and advocating for local, state, and federal policies that reduce chronic hunger and increase healthy food access for all people.

Just as no single strategy will solve hunger and nutrition-related illnesses, no single organization can tackle the problem itself. The responsibility to end hunger is a shared one among all members of society and if we are to solve this problem, we all must work together. Ensuring that every family and every community has access to safe, affordable, healthy food takes collaboration across all sectors, private and public.

As Hunger-Free & Healthy continues this work we invite community members to become involved, whether as a volunteer with the Eating Right cooking classes or by helping spread the word about the Farmers’ Markets in Main South and Great Brook Valley, or in any other way that your talents and passion may be useful.

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