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Mass. Food Banks Brace For Surge Of Need As $600 Unemployment Benefit Expires Soon03:45
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Greater Boston Food Bank warehouse associates move pallets of food to the loading dock to be distributed around the Greater Boston area. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Greater Boston Food Bank warehouse associates move pallets of food to the loading dock to be distributed around the Greater Boston area. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

It’s a busy weekday at the Greater Boston Food Bank, where a large warehouse in Boston’s South End supplies some 550 soup kitchens and food pantries throughout the region.

At the heart of the operation are about 25 workers — the ones who unpack food pallets and pack up orders for shipment.

KC Hollis, left, and Damian Reynoso stand outside of the loading dock at the Greater Boston Food Bank. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
KC Hollis, left, and Damian Reynoso stand outside of the loading dock at the Greater Boston Food Bank. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Damian Reynoso of Hyde Park knows from his own experience why the work he does matters, why he gets to work at 4 in the morning.

"I've been homeless, a few years ago, so I was food insecure," Reynoso says during a break. "It's a mission that hits home. So I'm definitely coming in every day ... knowing that I'm making a difference for somebody's kids, somebody's mom, dad."

Since the pandemic, the Greater Boston Food Bank has distributed more food each month than any other in its 40-year history. And now, officials at the state's food banks say they're expecting yet another surge in demand. That's because the $600-a-week emergency unemployment benefits will expire at the end of July, possibly affecting thousands of Massachusetts families.

The huge increase in requests for food aid has meant long weeks for warehouse workers like KC Hollis of Dorchester. He says life as the virus carries on reminds him of the busiest time of the year.

"Every day's like Thanksgiving ... then knowing that, you know, something like this was going to be a continuing thing," he said. "You know, we just had to work hard and push more product out."

KC Hollis moves a pallet of canned goods to the warehouse door so it may be loaded onto a truck at the Greater Boston Food Bank in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
KC Hollis moves a pallet of canned goods to the warehouse door so it may be loaded onto a truck at the Greater Boston Food Bank in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Last month the GBFB saw a 100% increase in demand over the previous June. That translates to nearly 12 million pounds of food in a single month. The food bank’s Catherine Drennan said factors — including soaring prices and the difficulty of finding new food sources — have caused the organization's spending on food to shoot up 5,000%.

"The unemployment numbers are getting better, but they're not getting as good as they were before this crisis hit," she said. "So while people are kind of returning back to normal ... this is our new normal."

As the state reopens its economy, the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show nearly 27,000 people made an initial unemployment claim on the week that ended July 4 — a roughly 10% decrease — down from nearly 30,000 the week before.

Still, Drennan says if Congress doesn’t act to restore the additional $600 in unemployment benefits people will soon lose, food banks could see another spike by Aug. 1. There are signs that Congressional Republicans and the White House could agree to extend the emergency assistance before the end of July — but it's unclear how much money would be given, or for how long.

"Anybody that's working in the basic needs community is very concerned because we get the connection between housing and hunger, and health care and hunger."

Jean McMurray, head of the Worcester County food bank

As the four food banks across Massachusetts contend with the impact of the virus, they agree that state government has stepped up to help fund their crisis efforts. The governor recently allocated $56 million to fight hunger in the pandemic, and the feds have started providing emergency food supplies.

But Jean McMurray, head of the Worcester County food bank, worries about more than food. She asks what will happen if the current moratorium on evictions expires and the state sees a displacement wave that some are predicting? That, she says, could also contribute to a sharp rise in food bank clients.

"Anybody that's working in the basic needs community is very concerned because we get the connection between housing and hunger, and health care and hunger," McMurray said.

At the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, programs director Christina Maxwell says food aid is a Band-Aid over a wound, that the greater need highlights deeper problems the state faces.

"A few groceries help people get from today to tomorrow," she said. "But in terms of real systemic assistance that people are going to need to get out of the hole that they're in right now, that help is really going to need to continue to flow from the federal and state governments."

In the meantime, Maxwell said her food bank is preparing to handle a surge in demand that could happen when the emergency unemployment benefits expire in about two weeks. That’s unless Congress finds a way to keep the money flowing.


Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the number of soup kitchens and food pantries the Greater Boston Food Bank serves. The post has been updated to provide the accurate figure. We regret the error. 

This segment aired on July 15, 2020.

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