Around the third week of every month, Pamela McAlpine and her husband, Victor Novo, visit a local food pantry, where they wait in long lines for a few bags of groceries.

“We don’t have so much money, but we need so much money,” McAlpine said. 

After living in New Bedford for 14 years while caring for Novo’s parents, McAlpine and Novo moved into a cottage they own across the harbor in Fairhaven in 2022. But it needed serious repairs after squatters ransacked the home. 

The couple lives off Novo’s “modest” pension and Social Security check. McAlpine, 57, suffered a stroke a few years ago, ending her career in commercial cleaning services. The price of home repairs — along with the growing costs of groceries, and medication for the 68-year-old Novo’s diabetes and congestive heart disease — has forced “hard decisions” about which bills to pay. 

That’s why they’ve turned to food pantries for help. 

“It really helps with the staples,” McAlpine said. “The need is great in Massachusetts.” 

Around this time every year, local pantries are helping people like McAlpine put Thanksgiving turkey and spreads on the table. But many providers say that turkey donations were lean this year, and the shortage limited how many food packages they could give out to surging numbers of clients. 

“Too many people, not enough turkeys,” said Sy Yules, program manager of the YMCA Southcoast’s hunger prevention initiative, the Full Plate Project. “We give out as many as we can. But it’s not enough for everyone, unfortunately.”

YMCA Southcoast Full Plate Project volunteers distribute food to waiting cars while soliciting donations at the New Bedford YMCA in New Bedford in late November. Credit: Adam Goldstein / The New Bedford Light

This challenge of food supply is not isolated to the holidays. Food relief providers across the South Coast say they’re dealing with unprecedented demand — even more than during the COVID-19 pandemic. But a pandemic-era surge in funding has ended, leaving pantries struggling to keep up with the need all year long. 

“We never have enough food,” said Emma Melo, the food program director at PACE Community Food Center. “Half of our shelves are empty.” 

The Community Food Center, a large grocery-store-style pantry, opened this year on Park Street in New Bedford. In 2021, the New Bedford nonprofit People Acting in Community Endeavors received a $450,000 federal grant to build it to meet increased food demand during the pandemic. Today, the food center is straining to keep up. It serves more than 100 families per day, including more than 10 new clients per day, says Melo.

Shelves sit half-empty after a service day at the Pace Community Food Center in New Bedford in early November. Credit: Adam Goldstein / The New Bedford Light

About 66,000 people in Bristol County are turning to a food pantry for help per month, an increase of 23% from a year ago, according to the latest Greater Boston Regional Food Bank data. 

Local food pantry managers say inflation and shifts in the job market have caused the spike in need. Emergency boosts to federal nutrition benefits during the pandemic expired in May, they note. They say staffing challenges with the Greater Boston Food Bank have made it difficult to meet increased demand. 

Pantry managers say they’ve struggled to get frozen meat, fresh produce, dairy, and other nutritious food to people on the South Coast. 

“We have a lot of working poor here,” said Pauline Lally, executive director of Damien’s Food Pantry in Wareham. “You have to pay attention to what’s at the end of your fork. Otherwise, stuff like diabetes and obesity is just gonna go up, and up, and up, and these are the people that need help the most.”

Food access advocates are calling for greater investment in local food supply chains, federal nutrition programs, and food pantries. 

“We need the people that came through with money to recognize that we are in a deeper crisis than we were during the pandemic,” said Wendy Garf-Lipp, executive director of United Neighbors of Fall River, which runs a food and toiletry pantry. “The feds, all the foundations: they need to come forward and direct the funding that they have for food initiatives that actually feed people.” 

Liz Wiley, executive director of the Marion Institute, a local health nonprofit, agrees.

“We have people right here in our communities starving, and having to make really tough decisions,” Wiley said. “We all have to create this fix.” 

A line of people wait outside the PACE Community Food Center in New Bedford in late November. Credit: Adam Goldstein / The New Bedford Light

Pandemic-era food relief

COVID-19 brought food security to the public eye. “Everyone was focused on it,” Wiley said, “whether you were a producer, processor, distributor, or food pantry leader. Everyone was coming together to foster solutions.” 

In spring 2020, as 690,000 people lost their jobs in Massachusetts amid a stay-at-home advisory, rates of food insecurity rose from one in every 12 people to one in every eight. 

Demand at Massachusetts food pantries surged. The Greater Boston Food Bank distributed more than 100 million pounds of food a year to local pantries between 2020 and 2022, up from 68 million pounds in 2019. 

About 1,000 families per week visited PACE’s New Bedford food pantry during the pandemic, a sixfold increase, according to the organization’s executive director Pam Kuechler.

Increased attention to food insecurity during the pandemic provided an influx of funding to meet the newfound demand, says Victoria Grasela, vice president of marketing and community engagement at the United Way of Greater New Bedford. 

“Money came in from every which way during the pandemic,” Grasela said. “It came in through the state, it came through private donors, it came through foundations that were looking to give more, because they knew the challenge of the people not being in work. It was everything.” 

In Dartmouth, YMCA Southcoast received a $388,000 grant from the Greater Boston Food Bank in 2020 to set up its Full Plate Project food distribution site. Now, the Full Plate Project gives away more than 100,000 pounds of food per month in a drive-thru pantry, YMCA Southcoast Community Outreach Director Lisa Rahn said. 

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Funding also went to local farmers. A U.S. Department of Agriculture grant issued to local food system nonprofit Coastal Foodshed purchased food for the PACE Community Food Center from South Coast farmers. Thanks to another USDA grant, local specialty  grocer Sid Wainer and Son prepared more than 30,000 boxes of produce for local pantries.

The Southcoast Food Policy Council, run by the Marion Institute, held emergency food meetings for its network of pantries and hunger relief organizations in 2020, allowing for greater collaboration.

That team “was able to make a difference for people in this community at a time when they were really struggling,” Kuechler of PACE said. 

“The money definitely helped us meet those needs more,” Grasela said. “Now, here we are, a few years later. And that food doesn’t exist anymore.” 

Reduced supply, sustained demand 

In 2023, post-pandemic demand at South Coast food pantries has remained high while food and funding have grown more sparse. Pandemic-era boosts to federal food assistance have ended.

But food insecurity has actually gone up in Massachusetts since the pandemic, says Jonathan Tetrault, vice president of community impact and operations at the Greater Boston Food Bank, which serves more than 600,000 people monthly.

One in every three Massachusetts residents does not have access to enough healthy food, up from one in every eight residents in 2020, according to food bank surveys. 

“It’s a really persistent crisis,” Tetrault said. “It’s a staggering number of people relying on a consistent local source of food to meet their daily needs.”

Tetrault and food pantry leaders say “overlapping crises” have led to increased need. In Massachusetts, the job market has shifted since early pandemic layoffs, and many people with long-term health impacts from COVID-19 have had to change their work patterns.

Inflation has forced many people, especially those on a fixed income, to make “very difficult decisions,” Tetrault said. 

Damien’s Pantry in Wareham has seen a roughly 50% increase in the number of people it’s serving this year compared to last year, said Lally. In mid-October, Damien’s Pantry limited access to residents of Bristol, Plymouth, and Barnstable counties, after people started coming from Providence and Dorchester for food. 

Meanwhile, problems with the food-relief supply chain have frustrated pantry operators. 

Melo of PACE, Rahn of YMCA Southcoast, and Lally of Damien’s Pantry all say they have dealt with challenges ordering food from the Greater Boston Food Bank this year. 

They say the food bank has been dealing with staffing challenges for most of 2023, leading to cuts in how much food they receive. 

Pantry managers said food deliveries from the Food Bank have gone back up to normal in time for the holiday season. But they are concerned they may go back down in the new year. 

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“They are wonderful partners with us, and they work really closely with everybody to do the best they can,” Kuechler of PACE said. “But it has been hard at times to get enough of everything to be able to do more than the bare minimum.” 

The PACE Community Food Center has had to cut the amount of food each person can take, says Melo. That’s because food allocations from the Greater Boston Food Bank have dropped from roughly 150,000 pounds per month to 100,000. She says that clients have been getting at least three or four bags of food per visit, “but it doesn’t seem to be enough.” 

Damien’s Pantry saw its allocations cut from 13,000 pounds of food to 10,000 pounds earlier this year. Lally said that while Damien’s has enough food now, if the Food Bank continues to cut allocations after the holidays, it will have to buy food with donations to meet demand. 

In March, the Greater Boston Food Bank had only 14 people packing food in the warehouse, down from a full staff of 25, Tetrault said. The food bank has recently hired six contractors to work in the warehouse, he said.

“When you’re down almost 50% of your labor force, you have to make some hard decisions to keep the place safe, and keep it operating,” he said. “Our partners have understood how we’ve been in a difficult position over the last few months, and are doing everything humanly possible to feed people.” 

Sourcing fresh produce has also challenged local pantries. An abnormal growing season and deer that eat crops have cut into the availability of local summer produce, said Stephanie Perks of local farm-to-table nonprofit Coastal Foodshed. 

The sun shines on YMCA Southcoast’s Sharing the Harvest Farm in Dartmouth in late October. Credit: Adam Goldstein / The New Bedford Light

YMCA Southcoast’s Sharing the Harvest Farm — which grows tens of thousands of pounds of produce annually for food relief projects — lost roughly 25,000 pounds of produce this year, just under half its projected yields, due to deer, said farm director Ashley Brister. 

These losses to Sharing the Harvest devastated the United Way’s “mobile market” produce distribution program, Grasela said, which gave away significantly fewer pounds of produce this year. 

Pantries are seeing fewer donations from grocery stores as supply chains stabilize, she said. Pandemic-era grant funding for pantry infrastructure and food has “dried up,” she added.

“During the pandemic, there was a lot more money out there,” Grasela said. “The grants are more competitive again. We’re applying for more, and not getting as much as we did.” 

The United Way applied for a $30,000 Project Bread regional grant to fund a winter “mobile market” of free fruits and vegetables, Grasela said. The United Way did not receive the grant, and is looking for alternative grants to fund the program. 

Last year, Damien’s Pantry received a one-time $120,000 grant from the American Rescue Plan Act, the federal government’s 2021 COVID stimulus package. That grant doubled the pantry’s food budget, Lally said. While the pantry has cash reserves to buy some food, she said, “there will be an outcry” amongst clients next year when people realize that money is gone. 

“If you don’t have the money, you have to cut back on the food that you give out,” she said. “I don’t know how these people are going to get the food that they need.”

Food relief organizations take action 

With funds slimming down, local food relief organizations are getting resourceful, addressing gaps in the local food relief network, says Wiley of the Marion Institute. 

“We know that there are big, missing parts of the puzzle,” Wiley said. “Let’s fill those parts.” 

The Marion Institute, the United Way, and the Greater Boston Food Bank are developing a system to order and break down full pallets of food for distribution to smaller pantries, Grasela said. Many small area pantries don’t have the storage space to accept full pallets.

Groundwork Southcoast, a local environmental youth group, has established more than 170 plots of produce at its community garden in Riverside Park and awarded them to low-income New Bedford residents. 

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The pandemic revealed that local pantries are too reliant on the Greater Boston Food Bank, Wiley said. So the Marion Institute has teamed up with local cranberry producer A.D. Makepeace to launch a farm-to-food relief project, called Frogfoot Farm. The Marion Institute will grow up to 60,000 pounds of fresh produce annually on the six-acre farm for area food pantries. The first harvest is expected in summer 2024. 

The Marion Institute also plans to start a regional gleaning program, training volunteer harvesters at Frogfoot Farm to rescue produce left in the field at local farms, Wiley said. She projected this program will bring an additional 200,000 pounds of fresh produce to the pantry system in three to five years. The Southcoast Food Policy Council has also restarted its weekly emergency food meetings, which bring together its network of food pantries, providers, and foundations to strategize on how to best meet need. 

With the holiday season approaching, Grasela said the United Way has organized food donation drives at 40 businesses across the region. She is optimistic her network will have what it needs. 

What concerns Grasela is what will happen in the new year. 

“Right now we’re going to see an influx of food because people want to give back,” Grasela said. 

“We love that, but I need to see that again in January. I need to see it in February. I need to see it in June. People are hungry all year round, and we need money to do more.” 

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Editor’s note: This story was modified on Monday, Nov. 27, 2023, to correct Emma Melo’s title at PACE Community Food Center and on Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023, to correct Lisa Rahn’s title at YMCA Southcoast.