Faces of food insecurity: Project Bread

Boston agency lends a helping hand to Island.

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Erin McAleer is the president of Project Bread and manages a "small but mighty" staff of 35 people.

Think of food access in Massachusetts like one giant chain. Each link is represented by groups like the Island Food Pantry, the Martha’s Vineyard Center for Living, First Stop MV, and similar organizations across the state. Within each link or group, there’s subsequent programming — food pickup sites, community dinners, meal programs, etc. They say a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. In combating food insecurity, the same concept applies.

The Times caught up with Erin McAleer, president of Project Bread, the only statewide antihunger organization in Massachusetts. For the past 50 years, Project Bread has represented a strong, unbreakable link in the food access chain, all while lending a hand to other groups, near and far. Headquartered in East Boston, Project Bread connects food-insecure individuals and households to programs that can support them. It has over 300 partners, one of which is on Martha’s Vineyard.

The Martha’s Vineyard Center for Living has been a partner for the past 15 years. Every year since, they’ve received a $2,000 grant.

“This year we increased their grant to $3,000, because we recognized the high need for food resources on Martha’s Vineyard,” McAleer said.

Grant money is raised through Project Bread’s annual Walk for Hunger, which takes place the first Sunday of May. Funds are distributed to partners every October.

“It was a really nice surprise,” Leslie Clapp, executive director for M.V. Center for Living said of this year’s grant. “We use the grant, among other donations, to help support all five of our distribution sites, buy additional food, and offset transportation costs to pick up food in Boston.”

Project Bread is also focused on implementing policy at state and national levels.

“We got some good news from the delegation in D.C. just yesterday,” McAleer said. Congress recently ratified the Farm Bill, which funds food access programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps). Part of its proposal was adding work requirements for SNAP recipients.

“SNAP is the No. 1 end-to-hunger food program in the country,” McAleer said. “We were facing proposals from the Republican-controlled Congress that were frankly really concerning.

“One thing we know at Project Bread is that most people on SNAP that are capable of working … are in fact working, and they’re still not able to put food on the table. SNAP is a safety net for them. We were concerned this was going to cause people to go hungry, so we did a lot of advocacy around that work. We’re really happy there’s no more further cuts to SNAP.”

On the state level, Project Bread is advocating for school breakfast legislation.

“It would mean that schools with over 60 percent of kids eligible for free and reduced-price lunch would provide school breakfast as part of the school day,” McAleer said.

Compared with the rest of the state, McAleer said Martha’s Vineyard faces similar issues regarding food insecurity.

“We know the cost of living in Massachusetts is the No. 1 reason for food insecurity,” McAleer said. “The uniqueness with Martha’s Vineyard is those challenges exist, but people just presume they don’t … The cost of housing is also so much more exaggerated because it’s a second- and third-home market. It’s really challenging for individuals making minimum wage, as well as in the middle income area …

“And then just the seasonality of work. We know folks that make a really great wage in a restaurant for three months a year, but when you take that and spread it over 12 months, it’s not enough.”

Despite what it’s up against, McAleer applauds the work being done on-Island.

“Between the Food Pantry, summer meals, and school meals, Martha’s Vineyard is doing some really great work,” McAleer said. “As an Island community, I think individuals are better connected to resources than other communities in the state. But one of the reasons why we gave the increased grant is because we know the need is higher than the capacity right now.”

Southeastern and Western Massachusetts, and the Cape and Islands, are among the most vulnerable regions in the state to food insecurity, according to McAleer.

“There’s not nearly as high of an investment,” she said. “Rural areas can be challenging. Those more rural communities where fundraising isn’t as strong and there aren’t foundations pouring money into them.”

The future of it all cycles back to the chain. “We try to highlight communities and solutions, and support organizations that get support from other organizations,” McAleer said. “For example, there’s a number of food pantries that have done incredible jobs to make the food pantries feel like a supermarket. We like to highlight and promote best practices.”

As Project Bread moves into its 51st year, it has two goals. “One is a storytelling campaign,” McAleer said. “Over the next few weeks, we’ll be promoting stories from three distinct regions in Massachusetts, East Boston, north of the Quabbin, and Cape Cod … The second thing that we’re doing is investing in research. We’re partnering with Children’s Health Watch, and we’ll be looking at the status of food insecurity in Massachusetts today, but we’re also going to take a look back over the past 50 years to see if there’s any lessons learned about strategies that have worked. We’ll be specifically targeting racial and ethnic inequities, because we know those are underlying causes of food insecurity.”

According to Project Bread, Massachusetts has 1 in 10 families and 1 in 7 kids struggling with food insecurity.

“In a country as wealthy as ours, in a state as wealthy as ours, no one should wonder where their next meal is going to come from,” McAleer said. “There is more than enough food here to feed everyone.”