For the first time since the Great Recession ended in 2009, the numbers show that western Massachusetts is seeing a decline in individuals seeking food assistance.
In the Hampshire County hilltown of Huntington, on Thursdays in this church basement, waves of clients weave through pantry shelves choosing food items.
“I think on a regular basis we serve well over six hundred to seven hundred people in a in a month, easily,” says Kristan Faul, operational director at the pantry. “The region that we serve is the Gateway School District, basically; there’s actually seven towns that we serve, in general. But we do have some people around the area that do come from as far as Sandisfield or Otis to our food bank even though they’re almost 45 minutes to an hour away.”
There are hundreds of organizations like the Huntington Food Pantry across western Mass that provide food to people who need it. And the umbrella agency for these emergency food providers, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, provides the bulk of the food.
The number of people using pantries or feeding programs actually went down in the last year — by about 26,000 people. But the Food Bank’s executive director, Andrew Morehouse, says those who do still need emergency food — the hardest to employ, those with kids and the elderly — need it more often.
“We call that chronic emergency food assistance these are folks who are repeatedly running out of earned income or public benefits, whether it’s welfare payments, their SNAP benefits or Social Security in the case of an elder, and therefore can only rely on a bag of groceries from a local pantry.”
The raw numbers don’t explain why there’s an increase in frequent food pantry visitors in western Massachusetts, or the decrease in overall users. So I called Mark Melnik at the UMass Donahue Institute. He specializes in socio-economic issues.
“Economic indicators as they relate to Massachusetts have been generally positive,” Melnik says. “So we’ve seen robust job growth, decrease in poverty rate in general, increases in median household income and so on.”
But that economic recovery has been uneven, Melnik says. And that means the people who haven’t been helped by the recovery — but still face other rising costs (such as, Melnik says, the high costs of rent, heating homes), they need to access emergency food more and more.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelling Mark Melnik’s last name.