By Amanda Beland
The USDA began collecting food security household data in 1998. Since this first survey, 14 years ago, food security among households has dropped almost three percent. This means thousands of households that were once able to provide adequate food have slipped into food insecurity.
Here in Massachusetts, the issue has been steady – and debilitating – for years.
Between 2008 and 2011, food insecurity among Massachusetts households increased by 5 percent. This jump outpaced the national average for food insecurity throughout the country.
Behind the Numbers – Cost of Living
The reasons for the increase are varied. When the economic recession hit in 2008, many lost their jobs and were forced to make some tough decisions – pay the heat, the mortgage, the car payment or buy some carrots. The decision for the majority of the jobless was straightforward, though difficult.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the minimum wage in Massachusetts at $8 per hour in 2012. This means a 40-hour-a-week job would garner less than $400 a week after taxes. Although utilities can be adjusted and sometimes – purposefully left off – rent and housing expenses are something that can’t be ignored in this city.
Findthedata.org, a website that aggregates reliable and accurate statistics from across private and public sectors, noted that housing costs in the Boston Metro area are 68 percent more expensive than the average United States city. Further, this same site also states the total cost of living – which includes housing costs, food, transportation, utilities – for this same region is 44 percent more expensive than the average US city.
To put this into perspective, the site says the city with the highest cost of living is the New York Metro Area, including New York City, which has a cost of living that is just 11 percent higher than Boston.
Behind the Numbers: The Young and Poor
In the past, food insecurity has been traditionally linked to poverty. Data from the Henry J Kaiser Family Foundation showed 15 percent of the state’s population is living below the poverty line, with 19 percent of the affected population being below the age of 18.
While poverty certainly plays a role in whether residents can put healthy food on the table, other circumstances are beginning to contribute to the number of food insecure individuals in the state. These circumstances are helping to change the traditional face of food security. It’s no longer just the single-parent households and the jobless families; it’s students, young professionals, children, newlyweds and the recently – or consistently – unemployed.
Lovin’ Spoonfuls is a non-profit food rescue program in Boston. Each weekday, drivers visit grocery stores, farmers markets and restaurants and pick up fresh or prepared foods that would have otherwise been thrown away. The drivers then deliver and donate the food to local food pantries and shelters throughout the greater Boston area. Operations Manager Lauren Palumbo said Lovin’ Spoonfuls works with many different types of beneficiaries, including those located in areas where people wouldn’t even expect food insecurity to be located.
“It’s not exactly who you might picture and I think that’s what is changed a lot, you know, especially in the last five, six years with the recent economic downturn,” said Palumbo. “And people always assumed it was people who were living in the poorer neighborhoods, but that’s really not the case anymore. We work with a community meal program in Norwood and Norwood is a very nice town – but when people are faced with, maybe one household member was laid off, or unemployment benefits ran out, and you’re faced with choosing between paying your mortgage or car payment or buying food – you know, you don’t want to be kicked out of your house so you have to turn to a few other solutions – whether that’s the local food pantry or a community meals service where you know at least once or twice a week theres a meal program and you can bring your family and not stress about that.”
The face is also getting younger. Central Square Farm Manager Vanessa Buttolph said the summer and fall market located in one of Boston’s most affluent areas in Copley Square sees a lot of food stamp users, including many 20-to-30-year-olds who are a part of the local Americorps and Teach for America programs. Participation in these programs offers the chance for service, but also partial to full forgiveness of student debt. Buttolph, along with being the manger for the Cambridge-based market, also runs the city’s
Behind the Numbers – The Young and Indebted
The non-profit education foundation American Student Assistance, reported roughly between $902 billion and $1 trillion is outstanding student loan debt in the country today. In 2010 and 2011, 54 percent of undergraduates graduated from public institutions with student debt, with the average debt being over $24,000. In 2012, the average student debt amount saw an increase of over 5 percent to an amount close to $27,000.
Students are graduating with crippling debt and entering into a job market that claims an unemployment rate of 7 percent. They have monthly loan repayments, high housing costs and low monthly incomes. It doesn’t seem surprising that healthy food for this population again becomes secondary to survival.
Behind the Numbers – More Mouths
Since the turn of the century, food pantries and other government assistance programs have been at the forefront of battling this epidemic. David Andre, the food and nutrition director of the American Red Cross Boston Food Pantry, said there’s been a large increase in families and individuals using the pantry.
“In 2002, 2003, we had about 11 to 12,000 families back then,” said Andre. “That was pretty much when I was starting and that number was so high. I was like ‘oh my gosh so many families, so many people each day… sometimes we’d do 300 families.”
The Red Cross operates the second largest food pantry in New England. They serve close to 20,000 pounds of food per pantry day. According to Andre, the pantry sees varying percentage increases of clients per year. This year, the pantry has seen a one percent increase in the number of people served. In 2012, a ten percent increase was recorded. Compared with numbers from 2002, according to Andre, the number of clients served has increased four times in the last 10 years.
“The average back then was 220,” said Andre. “And now it’s almost unheard of to do as low as 300 families. We’re averaging close to 500 now.”
Small Solutions for a Growing Problem
With the demand for healthy food rising and the number of food insecure families remaining stagnant, residents, organizations and policy makers in the Bay State are turning to alternative – and innovative ways – to help bring healthy food to those who need it. Some of these ways are outlined in subsequent stories and include food rescue programs – like Lovin’ Spoonfuls – out of the ordinary farming initiatives including mobile farmers markets and rooftop gardens, the acceptance of food stamp SNAP benefits at farmer’s markets and the changing face of the school lunch program. The creators of these movements hope their efforts will help to lower the numbers for the better.