While most Newton families head to area supermarkets this week to stock up on food for Thanksgiving feasts, there will be more than 1,000 other families who will be filling up their grocery bags with fresh food from one of the city’s two food pantries.
The Newton Food Pantry (newtonfoodpantry.org) and the Centre Street Food Pantry (centrestfoodpantry.org) both report that the week before Thanksgiving has been the busiest in the history of their nonprofit organizations.
“Many Newton residents are shocked by the number of local families dealing with food insecurity issues since we are often viewed as a wealthy community,” said Dr. Regina Wu, president of the Newton Food Pantry. “But the fact is that the numbers have increased sharply in recent years.”
The data backs her up. While the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the median household income of Newton families was $154,398 in 2020, it also found in a 2021 survey that 3,650 Newton residents live in poverty.
In visits last week to the two food pantries, there were some 80 cars that snaked along Homer Street next to Trinity Episcopal Church whose drivers were picking up loads of groceries from the Centre Street Food Pantry and hundreds of families selecting food and personal care items at the Newton Food Pantry in the basement of Newton City Hall.
Some 350 families were expected are expected to pick-up food on Tuesday from the Centre Food Pantry and more than 250 other families were given bags of food, personal care items and gift cards for turkeys last Saturday, according to Rose Saia, executive director.
About every two minutes a car pulled up to the side entrance of the church and a couple of volunteers, some serving as interpreters, packed bags of groceries based on the size of the families and put them in the car, as other volunteers filled more bags with frozen meat, fresh vegetables, loaves of bread and other items.
The Newton Food Pantry has already provided food and gift cards for 944 individuals from 379 families this past week, including more than 100 turkeys donated by one supporter, as well as some prepared meals provided by other donors, said Dr. Regina Wu, the organization’s president.
Individuals, many speaking Ukrainian, Chinese, Spanish and other languages, entered the pantry which resembled a grocery store where they were greeted by volunteers, one at a time, pushing carts and filling their bags with fresh and frozen food and other staples.
Two shelves were loaded with what Dr. Wu called “culturally relevant food,” specialty items that that were familiar to those from other countries. Volunteers greeted the pantry’s clients warmly at each food station.
Saia said the number of families the Centre Street Food Pantry serves—40 percent of whom live in Newton—has increased by 20 percent in less than a year and expects to provide food for 5,400 individuals in November alone.
The need for food “is the most demanding I’ve ever seen,” said Saia, who has worked with food relief agencies for more than a decade. She estimates that 75 new households a month are being added to the list of clients the food pantry serves.
The numbers at the Newton Food Pantry tell a similar story. So far this year, its volunteers have distributed more than 71,500 bags of groceries—a five-day supply of food—and personal care items to 910 Newton households that included more than 2,100 individuals.
Dr. Wu said the number of clients increased 21 percent over last year and more than double the number of families served in 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic. Some 23 percent have children below the age of 17 and 26 percent are over 65 years of age.
At the Centre Street Food Pantry, 60 percent of those served before the pandemic were senior households, and now 70 percent are families with children, according to Saia.
Many are not unlike “Andrea Brophy,” a longtime Auburndale homeowner who heads to the Newton Food Pantry in the basement of City Hall twice a month with her two young children in tow.
Brophy (who asked not to use her real name), said her family’s finances “took a hit” when she lost her job. “Without the food pantry we just wouldn’t be able to afford all the fresh fruits, vegetables and meats we now get,” she said.
“I used to go to the grocery store and buy frozen vegetables and junk food because it was cheaper. Now we’re able to get really good balanced meals and healthy foods.”
Then there are other clients, according to Saia, who are not even in a position to buy much of anything.
She described on man who walked to the Centre Street Food Pantry outside the Trinity Episcopal Church with an empty suitcase he used to carry food, and 80-year-old man who lived in his car and didn’t have the wherewithal to cook food.
While the increase can be partially attributed to the increasing number of refugee families Ukraine, Haiti, Syria and Venezuela, both Dr. Wu and Saia attribute the sharply increasing need for their organizations’ services to a number of factors, including rising food prices, higher costs for housing, .health care and fuel, and the cutback in federal funding for the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), formerly known as food stamps.
Earlier this year, special Covid-related extra SNAP benefits were eliminated, resulting in a loss of some $150 per month per eligible family.
“After years of getting to know our clients, I’ve come to realize that anybody is a step away from food insecurity,” Dr. Wu said. “That’s why it is so important for us to welcome any Newton resident with joy, respect and compassion, no questions asked, and no proof of need required.”
The two food pantries depend heavily on private donations to support their operations, as neither receives government funding. They both also receive significant support from area restaurants, bakeries, supermarkets and other retail outlets.
Individual donations make up 70 percent of the Centre Street Food Pantry’s $600,000 budget and 60 percent of the Newton Food Pantry’s $1.2 million budget. Both also receive grants from foundations and hold fundraising events to balance their budgets.
They both receive the bulk of their food from the Greater Boston Food Bank but need to purchase substantial amounts of food and personal hygiene products. The Centre Street Food Pantry spent $35,000 this year just on diapers and the Newton Food Pantry bought $100,000 worth of supermarket gift cards for its clients.
The Newton Food Pantry spends $6,000 a month alone for the Newton Community Freedge, an outdoor, stand-alone refrigerator and pantry at 420 Watertown Street in Nonantum that provides milk, eggs, fresh produce, rice, peanut butter, prepared foods and other items 24/7.
The Freedge, organized by the pantry in collaboration with other local organizations, serves an estimated 15 shoppers per hour, according to Dr. Wu. Volunteers from 13 community organizations pick up weekly donations from more than 25 business partners.
Several hundred volunteers support the efforts of both food pantries, packing and delivering food, stacking shelves, picking up food from vendors and retail outlets, organizing and running fundraising events, and providing translation services.
The Newton Food Pantry is open by appointment only from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Wednesdays and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Thursdays. Walk-ins can pick up food from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesdays. Clients can visit twice a month.
The Centre Street Food Pantry is open from 1 to 2 p.m. on Tuesdays for seniors and from 2 to 5:30 p.m. for all others as well as Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Clients drive up to the pantry where volunteers put bags of groceries and personal items into the cars. Clients are eligible to pick up food once a month.
Families who need food can visit both pantries.
Individuals interested in donating, learning how to register, or volunteering can reach the two pantries at newtonfoodpantry.org or newtoncentrefoodpantry.org.