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Food Hotline Hears New Voices, Some Familiar From Other End

Donna Monterio works full time as a security guard, but can't afford to pay for rent and food. (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)
Donna Monterio works full time as a security guard, but can't afford to pay for rent and food. (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)

As the recession drags on, hunger in Massachusetts appears to be increasing sharply.

The clearinghouse for hunger assistance is the hotline operated by Project Bread. New requests for referrals to soup kitchens, food pantries or food stamps has jumped dramatically in the past year. “Good morning, Project Bread food source hotline,” Eileen Turijak answers the phone.

Lately, the Project Bread food hotline has been ringing more than Turijak or anyone can ever remember.

Requests for referrals to food pantries and help with food stamp applications has been steadily growing. The clearinghouse for food pantries says phone calls went up 34 percent in January compared to a year ago, 67 percent in February and there were 88 percent more calls for help in March. That’s more than 4,000 calls for food assistance last month.

Eileen Turijak manages the hotline. “A lot of the people calling recently are people who used to be the helpers and that are asking for help now,” Turijak says. “At the end of the call, we’ll let them know about a food pantry and there’s kind of a pause and they’ll be like, ‘I used to donate to that food pantry.’”

More people who’ve just lost their jobs are calling. Others have full time jobs, a college degree, maybe even a house. But, to pay the mortgage, they need help with food. One family, who didn’t want to be identified, says a recent job loss left them choosing between their mortgage and food.

Asking for help can be a humiliating experience. Just ask 55-year-old Donna Monterio, who called the hotline for the first time in January. “I was embarassed,” Monterio says. “I work, and it’s like you say to yourself, ‘Man, how are you going to a pantry when you know there’s someone doing worse than you?’ But I went anyway.”

At work, Monterio sits behind the security desk at a city-owned housing complex for elderly disabled residents in Dorchester. She knows all the residents by name and they are devoted to her, sometimes sharing their dinner or buying food for her cat.

She doesn’t qualify for food stamps because of her income. Monterio isn’t married, doesn’t have children and has no other family who can help her. “I try to work overtime because I have to,” Monterios says. “Even with the overtime, sometimes there’s no money for food.”

When asked what’s in her cupboard at home, Monterio recalls that she has peaches and spaghetti, and not much else. Not even sauce for the spaghetti, which she says she gave away to someone who was hungry. Now, Monterio gets spaghetti sauce from a food pantry in the basement of a church in Dorchester.

Ellen Parker is the executive director of Project Bread. She describes the food-pantry network as a shaky system for a big problem.

“If we had an epidemic in some community where the virus cased children to learn less efficiently, it made them more prone to illness, it depressed their immune system,” says Parker, “we would be looking at large system solution where getting fed doesn’t depend on being lucky enough to live in a community where there are some terrific volunteers.”

Project Bread says there’s increased demand at suburban food pantries which sometimes results in temporary food shortages. But Parker says there is enough free food to stock the pantries, but 80 percent of them are run by volunteers so it’s hard for them to open enough hours to meet the rising demand.

Ten years ago, people who used the food pantries had chronic mental illness or were disabled. Now, Parker says the cost of living is so high and the economy so bad, people who could stretch their wages can’t.

“You always hear people are a paycheck away from poverty and that I know is true,” Parker says.

It’s true for Donna Monterio in Dorchester.

“I had to swallow my pride a little bit,” Monterio says. “But if you don’t have no food. I was buying cookies at the dollar store and cookies were in the bed with me, so I was eating cookies everyday because it’s cheap. It only cost me $1. But that’s not very helpful, I gained 10 pounds, okay.”

She says she’ll continue using the food pantry to bring home more nutritious foods than she can afford to buy.

Project Bread says it’s common for people who’ve never been to a food pantry before, such as Donna Monterio, to try to live on cookies or some other inexpensive food, before swallowing their pride and going to a food pantry.

This program aired on April 14, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

Monica Brady-Myerov Twitter Reporter
Monica Brady-Myerov was formerly a report in WBUR's newsroom.

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