Vol. #16 November 2020
Food Security and Equity in a Pandemic:
The Experience of A Place to Turn
COVID-19 has exasperated inequities in many aspects of daily life. The impact on the ability of many in the MetroWest region to access healthy food is an example of this. Hunger has increased dramatically since the beginning of the pandemic. According to a recent Feeding America report food insecurity in Massachusetts has increased by 59% overall and 102% among children since 2018. That burden of hunger is not felt equally by all in our community. According to a study by Northwestern University, prior to the pandemic, Black households with children had twice the food insecurity rate and Hispanic households with children a 60% higher food insecurity rate as white households with children nationally. These disparities are only increasing as the pandemic progresses.

We are fortunate in MetroWest to have a number of agencies and individuals who are committed to ensuring everyone in our community has food on their table – before, during and after the pandemic. We asked Joanne Barry, the executive director at A Place to Turn in Natick to give her perspective on how they have adapted to the current situation while keeping dignity and equity at the center of their work.
Disparities in access to food existed in our community before the COVID-19 pandemic. Factors that often contribute to the unequal distribution of food resources include income level, distance between residences and grocery stores, employment, race, and disability. These factors intersect with each other and increase the risk of food insecurity.  Working to combat existing disparities, A Place To Turn (APTT) has been responding to the basic needs of local residents for forty-one years with a simple mission: to make our neighbors' lives better.

Now, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for emergency assistance is greater than ever. During this time of challenge and uncertainty, our focus at A Place to Turn is still on providing nutritious food and diapers to our neighbors, but the pandemic has shifted how we do so and has increased the number of people who we serve. We see larger family sizes as people are quarantining together and we are seeing many people coming to APTT who have never been to a food pantry before—most are recently unemployed and many have children out of school who are hungry. In addition, we are seeing many people who used services at APTT years ago and now need assistance again.

Because of the pandemic, there are even more barriers to food equity. Therefore, as A Place To Turn implemented many new safety measures and altered our methods of distribution, the staff worked hard to consider how equity factored into our emergency operating plan. A Place To Turn normally utilizes a choice model where clients come into the building and make selections for themselves and their families. During this pandemic, for the safety of clients and staff, clients do not enter our building (where it would not be feasible to socially distance) but instead come to the front of the building, call our staff, and then receive prepared bags that our staff brings out to a table. Because prepared bags stray from our choice-centered mission, we have been working to assess ways in which we can increase choice despite the safety measures that inevitably alter our distribution process. Volunteers help clients to add to the prepared bags with produce choices. A Place to Turn also aims to develop an online ordering system, which would greatly increase client choice. An online order sheet would allow people to ask for more variety and feel that they are choosing for their family, which is a more respectful way to serve.

With our emergency operating procedures, it is harder for staff to connect with clients because we have to stay six feet away and do not spend as much time as we would normally if they were shopping inside. Without our normal choice model, it is even more important to communicate with clients about any individualized needs. Volunteers have been working hard to address individual client concerns while treating everyone fairly. Having a coordinator who speaks English, Spanish and Portuguese interacting with each client has been vital.

Although lack of transportation and long distances between residences and grocery stores or other food resource centers can be a barrier to food resources generally, this health crisis has made the assistance that we provide even more difficult for some of our neighbors to obtain. Many people are unable to leave their homes for medical reasons, and transportation options are more limited than ever. As a result, we have developed new ways of assisting neighbors who cannot travel to our Natick location. Specifically, we have been working with the City of Framingham and their hotline, which people can call if they are unable to travel, and then the City delivers food that we provide. It has been a wonderful collaborative effort to reach people who cannot leave their homes.

A Place To Turn will continue to find ways to improve the assistance that we provide while keeping clients and staff safe, and importantly, will continue to collaborate with individuals, religious organizations, social service agencies, schools, city and town officials, local businesses and foundations. Working together as a community is key to fighting hunger, and A Place To Turn is proud to be part of a network that places trust, equity and food justice at the forefront of our work. Although this year has been filled with challenges and uncertainty, it has been inspiring and energizing to see the amazing collaborative efforts to help our neighbors in need. Together, we will continue our work to strengthen the food provider network and create meaningful and lasting change. In the meantime, we continue to feed people who are hungry—with dignity and respect.

Joanne Barry is the Executive Director of A Place to Turn in Natick. Their website is aplacetoturn-natick,org
Metrowest Health Foundation
161 Worcester Rd. Framingham, MA 01701 | 508-879-7625 | www.mwhealth.org