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June 29, 2024 23 mins
Food insecurity has been a growing problem in Massachusetts for years, especially since the start of the COVID pandemic. Inflation hasn't helped, with food prices skyrocketing at the grocery store and at local restaurants. A new report from the Greater Boston Food Bank in collaboration with Mass General Brigham takes a closer look at the factors driving this concerning trend. Catherine D'Amato, President and CEO of the Food Bank, and Dr. Lauren Fiechtner, Director of Nutrition at the Mass General Hospital for Children, break down the highlights of the report with Nichole and share resources for those who are in need.
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(00:07):
From WBZ News Radio in Boston.This is New England Weekend. Each week
we come together talk about all thetopics important to you and the place where
you live. It's great to beback with you again this week. I'm
Nicole Davis. While experts say inflationis slowing down, it's still very apparent
just how expensive food is when yougo to the grocery store. Even your
favorite local restaurant, the fast fooddrive through, it's more expensive to eat

(00:30):
there as well. Massachusetts is oneof the most expensive places to live in
the entire country these days. Whenit comes to making sure everybody has food,
A new report shows that's becoming harderto do. The Greater Boston Food
Bank and Mass General Brigham have workedtogether to put out this brand new Food
Access Report. It shows food insecurityis a major problem all over the Commonwealth,

(00:50):
and assistance that's already out there mightnot be enough to help. Let's
talk about it here. Catherine Demotto, the President and CEO of the Greater
Boston Food Bank. Doctor Lauren Fickneris the director of Nutrition at the Mass
General Hospital for Children. Thank youboth for being here, and Catherine,
I'd love to start with you let'sfirst talk about the food bank itself.
Tell us a bit about how youroperations work and who you serve. So,

(01:11):
the Greater Boston Food Bank serves ninecounties and one hundred and ninety cities
and towns across eastern Massachusetts. Eventhough our name says Greater Boston, we
actually serve eastern Massachusetts. And whatwe do is provide healthy, nutritious food
to six hundred agencies that are frontlinedirect distribution programs. They might be food

(01:34):
pantries, meal programs, shelters,after school programs, kids, elders,
veterans, all types of programs thatoccur. We provide them with that food.
So over eighty percent of the foodin these programs is coming from the
Greater Boston Food Bank. It's allfree to them. So the most important
thing we care about is to getpeople of the healthiest food at the time

(01:57):
they show up in their community help. There's a lot that goes into this,
a lot of moving parts and frankly, sourcing the food. Tell us
a little bit about how you getthat done and get those food products out
to those agencies. Sure, sothink of us as a charitable food distribution
program. We acquire store and thendistribute out to the six hundred charities.
So on the acquisition side, wepurchase most of our food. It might

(02:22):
surprise your listeners about seventy three seventyfour percent of all the food that we
acquire we are purchasing now. Thedays are long gone when that was donated
one hundred percent. We still doget some donated foods, but it's predominantly
things that we're looking for. Protein, produce and dairy are the sources that
we look for quite a bit,and then of course staple dry goods,

(02:45):
and these are things that are importantto families. They're culturally sensitive, culturally
aware. And then we handle federalcommodities and state commodities as well. We
might be your USDA organization are cominginto the state as well as disaster relief
well products are coming into the gonelaw. Let's talk to you about the

(03:05):
health impacts of food insecurity, doctorFickner. Let's talk about you know,
nutrition and how important it is.Obviously we're raised to know you have to
eat your fruits and vegetables and allthis stuff and make sure your food groups
are all covered. And nutrition,especially for young people and growing families,
is important. But when it comesto food in security, tell us what
that can do to a person,to a family nutrition wise. Yeah,

(03:27):
I think the first thing is thatit leads to a lot of stress in
the family unit. We know thatparenting, at least I know as a
parent of two, parenting in generalis stressful. And then to add on
this real concern of stress of whereyou're going to get your next meal can
be really stressful. And we certainlysaw that in the study that there was
very high levels of anxiety and depressionand those who had food in security and

(03:51):
the Commonwealth in twenty twenty three.There's also a substantial overlap with hypertension,
overweight and obesity and also diabetes.And so when a family has to make
the decision of whether to go hungryor to buy the cheapest food available when
there's not enough money, you canobviously buy the cheapest food available, which

(04:13):
isn't always the most nutritious, aswe all know. Yeah, for sure,
those processed foods. We talk aboutfood deserts. We'll talk about that
in just a moment. But youmentioned that report. Let's talk about this
new update which came out last month, and the numbers are staggering. To
me, almost two million adults herein Massachusetts are food insecure. Tell us
a bit more. Break those numbersdown for us if you could. Yeah.

(04:35):
So, each year we survey acrossthe Commonwealth, not just those using
the Greater Boston Food Bank food oralso the other food banks in the state.
But we use an online survey Querumthat basically recruits the three thousand participants

(04:55):
across the state. We set quotasfor income and gender and race, ethnicity
to make sure we're hearing from everyonein the Commonwealth, and then my team
takes the census data and we takethose three thousand respondents and make sure they're
representative of the entire state. Sothis year we estimated that one in three
again had food insecurity, which isabout the same since the beginning of the

(05:17):
pandemic. Truthfully, I'm sort ofhappy in some ways that it's the same
because all the federal benefits have stoppedsince our last survey, and we could
have imagined if the state hadn't steppedup when the snap benefits ended, we
hadn't passed universal school meals, etcetera, we would have had one and

(05:39):
two. Sure, I would loveto come back next year and say one
in four or work five. Iknow that's been Catherine and High School all
along, but in many ways,if we think about all these benefits ending
that people had for the pandemic,it's sort of reassuring that it's one in
three. Now, give us abit of an idea as to where in
the state we're seeing this hung orthis food and security the most. I'm

(06:00):
assuming it's in our cities and inour lower income areas, but I might
be I might be surprised here.Yeah, Suffolk County had a very high
percentage at forty five percent, Soyou're right, Boston certainly has high levels
of food insecurity. We also thoughthigh levels in Bristol County at forty eight
percent. Hampden also had high levelsat forty eight percent, and then Berkshire

(06:24):
County at forty five percent. Andthat's important to note too, because rural
areas you can have just as muchof a problem with food insecurity as you
know. People, I think believethat food in security is only really based
in the lower income cities, butyou could live in a rural town and
still deal with food insecurity. Yeah, it's really everywhere around us, especially

(06:46):
with one in three. And thenI think we have to remember that the
affordability crisis is happening at the sametime. And so we know everything in
Massachusetts is expensive to a ford,and so we're seeing it pretty widely distributed
this state. I would say thatthere's a lot of opportunity per transportation too.
There's a lot of transportation issues peoplewho were killing out the survey set,

(07:11):
and so you can imagine the ruraltowns where they're not as connected by
public transportation, that could be anissue. Sure, Sure, getting to
the healthy food is a problem.It's important. So Catherine, tell me
about let's talk about that affordability crisis. Actually, let's touch on that.
How has that been impacting your effortsat the food bank? Are you seeing
more demand? Is it making itharder for you to get the food you

(07:31):
need? Well, yes, we'reseeing more demand. I mean since COVID,
what we thought was going to bethis situation right that came back to
normal and went away and has notbeen the case. So hunger went up,
its stayed up, and that's whatwe're experiencing now. We're also seeing
a very Barbelle economy where people canafford certain foods and the other people cannot.

(07:57):
And when we think about just thecost of food, food inflation was
a staggering historical level during COVID andit is still high. It's still in
a percentage where when people go tothe grocery store they feel it. And
it doesn't matter whether you can buythose three bags of grocery store you cannot.
You feel it, you know thatthat price is still higher. I

(08:20):
believe we might have some universality inyour listeners that say, yeah, I
went to the grocery store, Iwalked out with a bag of groceries and
I spend one hundred and twenty dollars. What did I get? I'm not
really sure. And so this imagineif you have ten thousand dollars a year
to live on or twenty thousand dollarsa year to live on, we're all
facing the same pricing crisis. Sothis is a big part of it.

(08:45):
And for us at the food bank, because we buy a considerable amount of
food, as I knowed, wetoo see the inflationary reality. But Massachusetts
in general, as doctor Fickner said, is in a very expensive state instantly
last year with this year, theissues of affordability and equity are significant in

(09:05):
the reason why individuals and families findthemselves seeking help. They simply are not
making enough money. And while wageshave gone up as well, so everything
is moved. But if you couldn'timagine the whole thing shifted forward or upward,
but everything went right. And soyou need a dollar twenty to equal

(09:31):
the dollar you spent pre COVID.That's twenty percent just in order to take
care of what you were doing preCOVID, and everything is more expensive.
So that's the challenge that these familiesface and why it's important that there is
in a food system available to themin Massachusetts, whether when they need help

(09:52):
they can get the help they need. Now, we were talking about how
those federal benefits, the COVID benefits, they're essentially done now, they're just
been phased out. They're no longera factor here. What is being done
on the state level. I knowthey've really jumped in when it comes to
school meals, making sure that kidsare fed throughout the year, which is
great, there's summer school programs,But what are you seeing when it comes

(10:13):
to state efforts to try to fightfood and security here in Massachusetts? The
Universal School meals was one of themost important pieces of legislation that passed.
We were the thirteenth state in theUnited States to make all the food in
schools free to people and free tothese children. And so that means the
stigma's gone. You know, you'renot Families aren't having to search for be

(10:35):
deemed if they can't pay for thesemeals. There's not the stigma attached to
children, Oh you're you're a freeschool mill kid, and you're not.
And so what we've seen is asignificantly higher number of children I think it's
seventy four percent now lare that arenow utilizing or in the seventies that are

(10:56):
utilizing the meal program, where itwas in the third percent before. So
that's significant. So that's a stateeffort that state money. You're talking about
two hundred million dollars a year that'sgoing towards this in order to ensure that
children have access to food while atschool. Significant and that, as doctor

(11:18):
Frogner pointed out earlier, was notin our measurement of this study, but
we did see the increase. Wecan anticipate that that would be reflective next
year in a larger way. Thestate also does what's known as the Massachusetts
Emergency Food Assistance Program. They putthirty five to forty million dollars a year

(11:39):
into that program for the food banksystem across the state to purchase food.
And we buy, for example,from a sizable number of our local growers
and manufacturers, and all that foodis purchased with state dollars, which helps
put much of the highest and mostautritious food into the mouths of people across

(12:00):
our state. The last thing I'lljust say from the state is they are
hiring a Director of Food Security withinthe Department of Agricultural Resources. This is
key. States that have done thishave shown that the coordination of programs and
funding throughout the state improves. Byhaving this person in place, it makes

(12:20):
a big difference for government to talkto each other. An example, there's
an Elders are served by one department, Veterans are served by another department,
children are served by another department,Homeless are served by another department. Education
is in another department. They're allfeeding people, and so what this position

(12:41):
has the potential to do is tomake sure they're all coordinated on the services
and to help bus as providers acrossthe state do a good job as well.
And doctor Fickner, obviously you havebeen front and center with this study
or really on board with a lotof what Catherine was just talking about.
If you wanted to ban on thata bit more about what you're seeing from

(13:01):
the state, and also I'd liketo know about the community level as well,
what you're seeing in the healthcare world, about what's being done to help
fight food in security. Yeah,so I can speak from the healthcare side
for sure. So we are reallylucky that food insecurity screening is universal basically
and my health system at mess GeneralBrigham which is really great. So when

(13:22):
I see a patient, they've alreadybeen screened, I know where they're at,
and then I can also refer themto get snap enrollment either through Project
Bread or through the Greater Bosson FoodBank, or we also have a WICH
coordinator who will help my patients getenrolled in WICK. So that active assistance
where families don't have to navigate thesystem all on their own, can be

(13:46):
really beneficial. What we saw andthe study is that of those that were
screened, seventy three percent were referredto resources in the community and actually a
huge over eighty percent use those resources. So sometimes, you know, we
feel as physicians there's not much wecan do, but actually we can.

(14:07):
I think the other piece that wasinteresting is that for food and secure families
who are not enrolled in WICK,they said, if the application assistance was
connected to SNAP and to mass Health, that would be awesome. But also
the second thing was if they're apediatrician recommended that. I am a pediatrician,
I should be recommending WICK and makingsure all all of my patients are

(14:30):
getting it. So I think reallywe can do a lot as a multisector
collaboration, as we have here onthe show today. So and that's exactly.
You know, this is a fightthat's been going on for quite some
time. It's not like food insecurityhas been just a recent past few years
thing, and especially since COVID,it seems like everybody from all corners of

(14:52):
the Commonwealth have tried to come togetherto fight this. So, as a
healthcare provider, if somebody is listeningand their family is struggling, if they're
a parent who's using their money forfood to feed the kids and not themselves,
what's your advice to these families?So I would definitely reach out to
your primary care provider. We havea lot more resources than we had pre
COVID. I think in January twentytwenty five, some really exciting things and

(15:16):
mass health are happening where those patientswho have a mass health affordable care organization
managing their insurance will provide nutrition orhousing resources and each area will have a
provider for that, which is reallyreally exciting. So I'm excited to see

(15:37):
what that will do for the Commonwealthand for health in general. The other
thing I would say is don't beshy. I think we all know the
costs of groceries are high, andwe want to help, and as a
physician, we really want the stigmato be to go down as much as
we can. The other thing workingat the food bank is that the reason

(15:58):
I'm there is the moment I walkedin there and you go in the warehouse,
you see all this produce, Yousee all this healthy food, and
I think physicians and families don't knowthat a lot of the things that they're
distributing are incredibly healthy. In fact, we were meeting with a dietician last
week and she said, my goalit's ninety seven to one hundred percent healthy

(16:21):
food. So I was like,wait to go eighte fun for card here.
So I think you can be restassured that if you use the food
pantry system, people want to helpyou, that we're here for you,
and it's a resource that's really valuableacross the state. And I think that

(16:41):
Catherine too. When it comes tothe food banks, you know, some
families might think, well, mykids aren't going to eat that, or
like, what if I get homeand there's a bunch of food that my
family's not going to want to eatand it's just going to go to waste.
What do you suggest for families whomight be in that situation? Sure,
I mean as as doctors that you'resaying, if you connect to us
at GBFB dot org or you know, check in with us in my phone,

(17:03):
will make sure you know where youcan go in your community to get
food. That's the first start.You shouldn't be embarrassed to need some help,
because we all do. Once youget to that pantry, after school,
program shelter, whatever the program ofdirect service might be. Our job
is Greater Boston Food Bank is togive as many choices as possible into those

(17:26):
programs and to have them be ashealthy as possible. You know, it's
all foods in moderation, right,so making sure that we have the choices
that people are looking for. Andone of the things that our pantries are
they're called choice pantries, which meansthat when you go in, you have
choice. So you're going to havea kid that likes you know, whull

(17:48):
wheat bread and a kid that doesn'tlike you know, muffins. I'm making
that up, but as an example, you could you as the parent or
the provider, can make that choice. One likes one Life's carrots. And
then we also have certain other culturallyrelevant foods available in communities that have a
propensity in one culture or another presentor, as doctor Ficktor known of,

(18:12):
there might be dietary needs that familiesare going through and ensuring that those foods
are available as well. Lastly,I think that people want. You want
to be able to have people feelas dignified as possible and not be given
something that's foreign to them or doesn'ttaste good or they don't know how to

(18:33):
prepare it. We do have asite called click and Cook, which is
a push model which means you putin the items you have and it gives
you recipes, and it also canhelp you if it's in multiple languages.
It serves whether you have your coldcooking, you're scratch cooking, you have
a microwave, you have a hotplate, you have an oven, and

(18:53):
so it can identify that for you. It's not like I want to go
bake a cake and I go lookfor a recipe to do that. This
is I have carrots, chicken,and kale. What can I make and
make it tasty for children? TheLauren might know this better than I,
but there are you put food infront of children and if it's it's appealing

(19:17):
and it has a taste to it, it's it's shown that they will eat
it or try it, but youhave to make sure that they're comfortable with
it too. Yeah, I meanmost kids, I'm sure if you put
a plate of kale in front ofthem, that's going to work. That's
not gonna happen a dinosaur or something. Yeah, we pretend it's like a

(19:38):
dinosaur eating the leaves works. Whateverit takes children. I mean it's kits
are resilient and they're going to kidsare going to be more curious than others.
But you can do a lot withvery basic foods like fresh fruits,
you know, apples, oranges,grapes. There are things that come through

(20:00):
the food bank. They are available, strawberries, blueberries, you know.
Proteins are the primary food that's asked, be goes, protein, produce,
and dairy. Those are the topthree foods and they will vary. And
we do a lot of education tohelp folks understand a new vegetable or how
to use something. And we're fortunatewhere we are that we have a fishing

(20:22):
industry as well, so we canpull on that protein into the dietary complexity
of families. I love that.So then if somebody is listening and they
want to contribute, because we weretalking about how you obviously have a much
stronger demand right now, what doyou need the most? You purchase a
vast majority of your food. SoI'm assuming money is going to be the
most important thing for you right nowat the food bank. Yeah, Look,

(20:44):
three things make us go. That'smoney, food, and the people
who volunteer and help us leaders acrossour organization. So not everybody can write
a check, but if you canor send a venmo, you can do
it a number of ways to useyour credit card. It's not the size,
it's the action. It's important notto sit on the sidelines. It's

(21:07):
important to do something. So wecan all do something. One of those
is to give money. The otheris volunteering. We all have some time,
we all have programs on our community. We can again help connect people
to where they want to be.Food. We don't want people to go
do food drives. It's not somethingthat we encourage, mostly because we can

(21:30):
purchase five cans of tuna for thedollar you give us versus the can of
tuna you just bought. But ifyou want to do a food drive,
and that's the right thing because sometimesit works really well with kids, you
can do that, or you canbring it into your local food pantry and
your community, and we can helpyou how to do that. So food,
money, and your time are thethree things that make us go,

(21:53):
and you can do that by goingto GBFB dot org. Beautiful. All
right, So doctor Fickner over atMass General, obviously we were talking about
Mass General Brigham's efforts to fight foodinsecurity. How can they find out more
if people are listening and want toknow how they can access those resources Over
at MGB, Yeah, it's usuallythrough your primary care practice that can be

(22:15):
most beneficial is where I would suggestyou start. So if you have a
primary care pediatrician or adult doctor inmass Journal Brigham's network, you can do
that. Also, we have alot of efforts happening at our Masjournal Brigham
Health Plan and other things like that. So definitely call your insurance company as

(22:36):
well to see if there's anything thatcan support you. All right, and
so again, Katherine, the websitefor a Greater Boston Food Banks social media.
Where can people get to you andgive you that support they want to
So GBFB dot org and if youare in need of help, it's GBFB
dot org slash need help, okay, and it'll take you right to there.
Just drop in your zip code.It'll give you all the programs nearest

(22:59):
to you. B's and to Mottoand doctor Laurene Fickner from mass General Brigham,
thank you so much for your timetoday on the show, and thank
you for all your efforts to makesure everybody here in Massachusetts gets the food
they need. Yeah, thanks Nicole, thank you so much, and that
is the end of the show.Thanks again so much for joining me this
week and Hey, Please have asafe and healthy weekend and join me again
next week for another edition of theshow. I'm Nicole Davis from WBZ News

(23:22):
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