The Boston City Council Committee on City & Neighborhood Services held a hearing on May 8 on addressing food insecurity and cultural competency in the midst of the COVID-19 out-break.
Co-sponsored by City Councilors Liz Breadon and Julia Mejia, the hearing focused on what city agencies and other organizations have been doing to support the city’s most vulnerable populations during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as what can be improved to make it even easier for people to receive the food they need.
“Far too many families in our city are struggling to put food on the table,” Councilor Mejia said. “I hope to have a solution oriented conversation,” she added, and “move beyond the crisis and create solutions that extend far beyond our lifetime.”
She said her office began working on this hearing order when they repeatedly heard that peo-ple do not have access to culturally competent food and are receiving “what’s left over” at food banks and other food pickup sites.
“This pandemic has lifted the lid in many underlying problems that we knew were there in our communities,” Councilor Breadon said. “The issues are now so much more acute and critical at this time.” She said that she has seen “long lines” of people waiting for food at food pantries throughout her district of Allston-Brighton.
“People who have never experienced food insecurity before are experiencing it now,” Counci-lor Kenzie Bok said. She also said that one of the pieces of providing culturally appropriate food is being able top provide ingredients for people who are used to cooking at home, in-stead of having them receive already prepared meals.
Bok has been a leader in delivering boxes of fresh produce to residents across the city, and she said at the hearing that there have been many seniors who are used to having access to fresh fruits and vegetables, so programs like this are vital in the city.
Several panelists presented at the hearing, including Catalina Lopez-Ospina, Director of the Office of Food Access in the City of Boston.
She talked about the more than 60 youth meal sites that have been set up across the city, and “from day one we engaged with our food providers to make sure they had the capacity,” she said. She said that more than a million dollars from the Boston Resiliency Fund has been granted to immigrant services organizations to provide culturally appropriate food.
Additionally, Meals on Wheels services have been expanded to provide different types of food such as Caribbean, Cantonese, and vegetarian options. “We should offer what people want to eat,” she said.
She said that there are systems in place for people to receive food within 24 or 48 hours, and people who have no food and need it immediately can receive some within six hours.
“We know that food access has been an issue,” Lopez-Ospina said, and “moving forward, food is going to be one of the priorities for this administration.”
Jonathan Greeley of the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) said that the mayor has asked him to step away from his duties at the BPDA and “turn efforts to feeding Bostonians.”
He said that work on this issue has been separated into three categories: initial response, on-going initiatives, and next steps.
For initial response, he said that the setting up of youth meal sites was one of the first things that happened at the beginning of the pandemic, and the Boston Resiliency Fund has “be-come a crucial resource for our efforts,” he said.
Ongoing initiatives including working with the Age Strong and Immigrant Advancement offices, and to continue enrolling households in the food delivery network, as well as identify where there are still gaps. They also will continue to engage with stakeholders across the city to “an-ticipate where new needs are coming from,” Greeley said.
Next steps include the establishment of more food hubs and adult meal sites in neighbor-hoods across the city.
Dan McCarthy of the Greater Boston Food Bank said that the organization is the “largest hun-ger relief in New England and one of the largest in the country,” serving over 100 agencies in the City of Boston. He also said that according to Feeding America, one in four Bostonians ex-perience food insecurity.
He said that SNAP benefits are “our first line of defense against hunger,” and applications for SNAP have “skyrocketed”—there has been a nearly 400 percent increase in applications.
He called the Greater Boston Food Bank the “Costco of food assistance,” as many organiza-tions receive food from the bank and then distribute it to their own clients.
“The food acquisition team has been moving mountains,” McCarthy said. He also discussed the increased request for grocery items rather than already prepared meals, and Greeley added that the Age Strong Commission has had the opportunity on several occasions to pro-vide gift cards to grocery stores as well.
“We are working really hard to provide a wide variety of resources,” Greeley said.
Emily Shea of the Age Strong Commission thanked the Meals on Wheels program for stepping up to provide over 600,000 meals last week. She said before the pandemic hit, the program delivered around 43,000 meals a week. She added that Meals on Wheels is also still able to provide safe, socially distanced check-ins with the people they deliver meals to.
Pat Baker of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute discussed the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) program that is available for every single child in Boston Public Schools.
“Every school child qualifies for free school meals and is getting this benefit,” she said, which amounts to $5.70 per eligible student per day, or $28.50 a week.
She also brought up the question of EBT online purchasing, which is something she said should have been implemented much earlier, though she said EBT online purchasing will be limited to Amazon, Walmart, and other “large companies,” and is “not going to be helping local stores or bodegas,” she said.
“If we successfully close the SNAP gap in Massachusetts,” she said, “that’s going to double the federal nutrition dollars.” She said there might be a way the council could help out by sup-porting the initiative to “enable local grocers with different ways to access the SNAP benefits.”
Heloisa Galvao of the Brazilian Women’s Group said that “the need is so great and what wor-ries me more as we go into the eighth week of distance and we don’t know how many weeks we have ahead, the need is going to be greater and greater.” She thanked people for their leadership on being able to provide food to those who need it.
After further questions and comments from the Council regarding making sure people get ac-cess to the food they are familiar with eating, among other things, Councilor Breadon thanked all organizations across the city, including church food pantries, community agencies, and oth-ers, for stepping up to the plate. “I’ve never observed such an incredible effort across the board to deliver food and support to our most vulnerable residents at this very difficult time,” she said.
Councilor Flynn thanked the panelists for their “dedication in supporting people and families that are hungry,” calling them “the heroes of our city.” He also thanked the Mayor’s Office and his colleagues on the Council for their dedication to this issue.
“You make Boston the great city it is because of your compassion and dedication,” he said. “We see you and we appreciate everything that you’re doing.”