COVID-19 Exacerbates Food Insecurity in Newton

by Sophie Lewis, Managing Editor
photo contributed by Yoshi Futai

To comply with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Newton Food Pantry stopped allowing people who are 60 or older to volunteer in March. This meant losing 65% of its volunteer force, including its president, Tracie Longman. 

“I’m still writing things, organizing things, taking calls, answering emails, working behind the scenes, but I will not be at the pantry or interacting with any of our clients,” Longman said.

Meanwhile, the food pantry has seen a sharp increase in clients since the coronavirus began to affect Massachusetts. On Wed., March 11, the pantry provided food for nearly 60 households. That number became 115 the following week. By April 1, 189 households were being served. Previously, families could only pick up food once per month, but now twice-monthly pickups are allowed.

Because of COVID-19, the Newton Food Pantry is serving twice as much food to three times as many people and relying on a volunteer force that’s one-third of its usual size.

“We don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring. We’re anticipating continuing to be slammed,” Longman said.

With the coronavirus causing devastating unemployment across the globe — in Massachusetts, more unemployment claims were filed in one day in March than during the entire month of February — people who have never relied on food pantries are now seeking their services. “There will be a new level of need in people who have never experienced it before, so it’s really important for them to know that there’s availability for help,” Amy Less, president of the Centre Street Food Pantry, said.

The Newton Food Pantry and the Centre Street Food Pantry, two of Newton’s emergency resources, have adopted similar precautionary measures to serve the Newton community while facing the threat of the coronavirus. The pantries have shifted from being choice pantries, where clients could scan shelves of food and shops for what they needed, to providing pre-bagged food to clients waiting outside. Volunteer shifts are limited to maintain social distance. Both pantries receive most of their food from the Greater Boston Food Bank, which used to require that clients fill out a form to prove their need, but has now waived its income eligibility requirement. 

Less said that this change did not impact the Centre Street Food Pantry because they never turn people away under normal circumstances. “Our policy has always been anyway that anybody who comes in and needs food, they always get food from us,” she said. 

Representatives from both pantries said that they’ve been able to provide the usual food and personal care items to their clients — except for peanut butter, Longman said. 

Food hoarding and empty shelves in grocery stores can be devastating nonetheless. Junior Yoshi Futai’s family is friends with a surgeon at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. As an essential worker, she didn’t have time to visit dozens of stores in search of toilet paper and produce, so Futai’s family stepped in. 

“Coincidentally, my parents were at an Asian market, and because of the whole xenophobia thing, Asian markets are basically fully stocked,” Futai said. “We were able to get a lot of the things that she needed.”

The Newton community, like Futai’s family, has rallied to combat food insecurity. To serve Newton’s most vulnerable residents, the Newton Food Pantry is working to deliver groceries to senior citizen housing complexes, while the Centre Street Food Pantry is collaborating with the Newton Housing Authority to deliver food to low income residents. When the Newton Food Pantry needed empty egg cartons to distribute a large box of eggs among their clients, a post in the Newton Neighbors Helping Newton Neighbors Facebook group allowed the pantry to quickly receive what they needed.

Johnny’s Luncheonette has donated soup to five pantries and housing facilities around Newton in the past weeks.

“I thought we could continue to reach out into the community and help people at this time where so many people could potentially be food insecure,” Karen Masterson, owner of Johnny’s Luncheonette, said.

While the Newton Food Pantry has temporarily stopped accepting volunteers under 18, the Centre Street Food Pantry has not. 

“We could potentially use a few kids now, but definitely when operations get back to normal, we would love to have more high school kids come and volunteer with us,” Less said.

Futai, who used to volunteer with the Newton Food Pantry, said that she’s working to raise awareness about the food pantry’s efforts over social media.

 “I still am helping the community by getting the word out and telling everyone that you can donate money,” she said.

The Newton Food Pantry is located in City Hall and is open every Wednesday from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m., as well as Saturday, May 11 from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.

The Centre Street Food Pantry is located in the Trinity Episcopal Church and is open every Tuesday from 2:30 to 6:00 p.m.

Food relief is also available to residents from the Arabic Baptist Church Food Pantry.

Newton students can pick up free lunches from North and South between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m., Monday through Friday.